Monday, June 2, 2008

Is College Really for Everyone?

This recent piece from The Atlantic is a must-read. Many issues are raised that are central to what we do as educators. Among other things, the piece highlights a difficult question: Is college really for everyone? Are we really doing people a service by making college necessary? It's probably best to just ask people to read it and give their impressions on the major points made. Lots to talk about in this piece.

The money quote:

America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.

Update: There are a lot of people out there talking about ol' Professor X (some not so kindly). Click for Matt Yglesias, Sherman Dorn, Michael Ayers, EdPolicyThoughts, Armed Liberal, Flypaper, Ross Douthat.


  1. I read the piece a while back and I don't think we do anybody any favors when we push them into college.

    Students know when they don't have the abilities to make it in college, but by constructing a society that pretty much forces them into college, we push many students away from good professions they are likely to enjoy and make a good living doing.

    The thing is, in the best of those kinds of cases, they end up doing technical education anyway -- after having failed at traditional college courses. The worst case is that they fail out of school thinking they are stupid and worthless, and end up in jobs that can't support themselves or their families...

  2. I, too, read this a couple weeks ago and fully agreed with it. Equal opportunity is all very well, but we need to realize that not everyone is cut out for college.

    There's great resistance to this claim, of course. It's often said that everyone can succeed in college if they get the right support. I don't think this is true - certainly not unless the K12 education system is monumentally improved so as to produce uniformly better-prepared students, but maybe not even then.

    Here's a way I think about it: does everyone have the ability to, say, climb a 25,000-ft. mountain? No. Some people just don't have the physical capacity for that. (Or, even if they could acquire the capacity, doing so would take such lengthy dedication and training as to make the enterprise a waste of their time, given the other things they could be doing.) Why, then, should we think that everyone has the ability to get a college degree? (My suspicion: Cartesianism! The mind isn't material and therefore is not subject to the limitations that plague the body.)

    The cases that really get to me are the athletes who are in college to play sport (usually football), and who clearly would never have gotten near a college if it weren't for that. I had one once, in a writing class, whose essays during the semester were quite good; but when he had to write a simple essay in an exam situation, it turned out he could barely produce a coherent sentence. Someone had been helping him write those papers, because he couldn't do it himself. He just should not have been there. Perhaps, if his earlier educational experience had been better, he could have coped with college; but as he was, he just couldn't, and having him in there was doing him a terrible disservice. As the previous poster said, no one should be put in a situation where they are made to fail so badly and repeatedly.

  3. I think the preparation point is a good one. I also tend to think that perhaps the best K-12 education for some students ought to be focused on guiding them to their areas of talent.

    It is a basic fact of the matter that we all have distinct talents. People also come in a wide variety of intellectual abilities. Students with intellectual talents and abilities ought to be guided toward college. Others ought to be guided toward edcuations appropriate for their own talents and abilities.

    I also think it is a true shame that K-12 education doesn't seem to count for anything. We no longer consider someone with a high school diploma to be an educated person. Thus, we force people into college (and force them to pay for it) when their civil rights include a decent education.

    Perhaps the solution is something like a test-out for high school. The real problem now is that some students leave high school without an education and others leave with a decent education. Employers can't tell the difference, so they hire someone with either some college or a degree -- as a way of insuring the employee is capable of performing an entry-level job. If someone had a high school diploma plus a certificate of learning, they could be competitive with the 'some college' folks.

  4. I think we ought to make a distinction between being able to do well in college, and the question whether one should go to college.

    As a caveat, I've only been dealing with students as a 'teacher' for about a year.

    I think it's possible for most everyone to do well in college. Granted, for some it's more difficult to break out of long ingrained thought patterns. These are the students that have never been challenged to think in the ways that the university is asking them to think. They've never written the way the university is asking them to write. All of these are hurdles, yes, but I don't think any of them are insurmountable to a dedicated student. Difficult, certainly, but it's not insurmountable.

    But whether these students should be going there in the first place, I think, is a different question. For many people, regardless of white or blue collar job aspirations, the BA/BS simply isn't needed. Whatever skills or training is needed will come with on the job training.

    Now, I agree with inside the philosophy factory that K-12 education should be perceived differently than it is, and certainly a well educated population is key to a good democracy. But I don't think we should push everyone to get that BA/BS degree.

  5. Given that any means of, as it were, sorting those who are ready for college from those who are not will be at best ineffective (think here of the SATs) and at worst reinforce institutionalized inequalities (think here of tracking), it's probably best to focus less on who is and isn't capable of college work and focus more on the truly broken K - 12 system. My best college students are also woefully under-educated. In my experience, those who are not prepared know it, and they are just hoping that no one else notices it as well. They are frightened and don't understand why they aren't ready. The saddest part is that they think it is their fault when in fact their country has failed them.

    Perhaps more telling than Professor X's story is the recent report that students in Teach for America teach more effectively than those coming out of education programs. Here is the report:


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