President Obama is not alone in promoting it but he is massively committed to one of the greatest myths in modern American culture. This myth says that millions more young Americans ought to go to college. Who says so? A recent Harvard University study found that two-thirds of American high school graduates are unprepared to enter a four-year liberal arts program of education. In fact, the study concluded that “more than forty percent of students who enter college drop out before graduation.”
Why do so many go to college who are not prepared? The study says their parents pushed them too much, seeing it almost entirely as a means to a higher salary. But the majority of high school graduates are not only not ready for college they are much more suited to other types of work. There are great jobs in management and trades that will make a person as much or more money as most college graduates will earn. In fact, many college graduates are over-educated and under-prepared to really work and will not make what their peers will who used their skills more effectively.
Yet the president insists that we need a massive expansion of the Pell Grant program, thus creating a new entitlement program for college expense. Michael Moynihan, writing at reason.com concludes that “too many people are attending college these days.” He admits that it is “impolite and impolitic” to say so but this is the truth. I don’t expect the president to heed such advice, even when it comes from the left, because his own experience tells him how important college really is. Further, he worked as a community organizer among the poor and accepts the mantra that the way out is college. The truth is very few high school graduates in the places he organized can or will make it in college. For everyone his program helps there will be massive expense that only pushes us closer to bankruptcy as a nation. This is not a conservative position, simply an obvious one.
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I worked for years in career and vocational education. Many people thought it was some form of special education for pitiable students who just did not have the ability to handle refined academics. All the meanwhile many of my students fixed their cars, built their houses and repaired their air conditioners to the tune of $60 per hour and raised kids and families and were happy but the poor unfortunates were looked down upon because their hands got dirty. We have become such a nation of silly people with really dumb notions of what constitutes a worthwhile life.
Four-year colleges and universities are now forced to do what our high schools have failed to do: teach remedial math and writing to large numbers of unprepared undergraduates. It is very unfashionable in America to tell a young person that he or she is unsuited to go to a four-year college. But in Europe, the UK and Australia, students are tracked into different paths relatively early on, and larger proportions are sent to technical and vocational schools. This tracking has its own problems, but by and large I think it does work better than our system. Perhaps we Americans would feel less guilty about vocational tracking if our elementary and high schools did a better job of educating our kids. And if we fostered a culture of lifelong reading and learning, the decision not to go to college would be less stigmatizing, without the same air of finality.
John, thanks for speaking this important truth. As the son of parents who both hold PhDs, formal education was very important in my home growing up, and I am fortunate to have been good at it; I enjoyed college (my graduate degree was less enjoyable). However, there was always a kind of air of assumption or outright expectation that I and my siblings would all go to college. Now, as a father of two very young girls, I have already given myself permission to encourage them to do whatever suits them, whether that includes a college degree or not. I find it liberating as a parent to not feel the pressure to push my children towards the college route if its not for them.
This is a very accurate post. I have a bachelors and a masters degree, and after owning a business for 13 years, I changed careers and went into the heating and air business and work with many people who have never gone to college, but are quite intellegent and do very well financially. In fact, the trades are going to have a shortage of workers in the near future nation wide (some places already do) because of the notion that “getting dirty” is a “less than” type of career.
Finally, my dad was attending Ohio State in the 50s on the GI bill after Korea. He took a test that showed he preferred outdoor work over indoor work. His councellor told him at that time there were really only eight courses of study for which he needed to be in college, and my dad did not show an interest in any of those. What did my dad do? He quit and went to work for a natural gas pipeline company that he worked for for 35 years. Funny thing is, he ultimately started there R and D division and self-educated himself, and today they would probably demand and engineering or science degree for that position.
Thank you for your insights.
A chemical engineering dropout at Berkeley, I had a 20 year career in architecture with no education in that field whatsoever. Very rare these days. Many people enter architecture with higher degrees and entry level people still do the menial work. It makes me wonder.