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Who Should Go to College?

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Posted on Dec 9, 2012
Flickr/Mays Business School at Texas A&M University

By Mike Rose

(Page 2)

Another point that the skeptics make is the troubling record of student success in postsecondary education. Do we really want to urge more students into a system that on average graduates about 50 to 60 percent of those who enter it? The doubters are right about the unsatisfactory record of student achievement. But their solution seems to fault students more than the colleges they attend and affords no other option but to redirect students who aren’t thriving into job-training programs.

We need to be careful about painting this broad group of students with a single brush stroke. Some are strongly motivated but because of poor education, family disruption, residential mobility or a host of reasons, they are not academically prepared. The question is what kind of course work and services does the college have to help them. (And it should be noted that many vocational programs recommended by the skeptics would require the same level of academic remediation.) Some students are unsure about their future and are experimenting. In my experience, it’s not easy to determine in advance who will find their way. We also know that a significant number of students leave college temporarily or permanently for nonacademic reasons such as finances, child care or job loss. Some of these cases could be addressed with financial aid or other resources and social services. So although I take the doubters’ point about the poor record of student success and agree that college is not for everyone and that a fulfilling life can be had without it, it is a simplistic solution to funnel everyone who is not thriving into a vocational program.

Such a solution also smacks of injustice. Right at the point in our society when college is being encouraged for a wide sweep of the population, we have the emergence of a restrictive counterforce that is seen by some as an attempt to protect privilege, or, at the least, as an ignorance of social history. Research by sociologists Jennie Brand and Yu Xie demonstrates that those least likely to attend college because of social class position—and thus, on average, have a less privileged education—are the ones who gain the most economically from a college degree. For such populations, going to college can also provide a measure of social and cultural capital. There is a long history of exclusion that has to be addressed before countering broad access to higher education.

All the above raises the basic question: What is the purpose of education? Both the college-for-all advocates and the skeptics justify their positions on economic grounds, but another element in the argument is that in addition to enhancing economic mobility, going to college also has important intellectual, cultural and civic benefits. These different perspectives on the purpose of college play into—and are shaped by—a long-standing tension in American higher education: a conflict between the goal of cultivating intellectual growth and liberal culture versus the goal of preparing students for occupation and practical life. I think this tension—like the divide between the academic and vocational—restricts the conversation we should be having. We should be asking how can we enhance the liberal studies possibilities in a vocational curriculum and enliven and broaden the academic course of study through engagement with the world beyond the classroom.

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A third option beyond college or work has emerged in the last few years: Linked Learning, which is also known by its former name, Multiple Pathways. There are various incarnations of Linked Learning, but a common one is a relatively small high school that is theme based and offers a strong academic curriculum for all students; the students then have options to branch off toward a career, an occupational certificate or a two- or four-year degree.

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It is important to remember here that goals, expectations and what students imagine for themselves are deeply affected by information and experience. For a multiple pathways approach to be effective, students will need a lot of information about colleges and careers and plentiful opportunities to visit campuses and potential work sites such as hospitals, courts and laboratories. The differences in cultural and social capital between my UCLA students and those I know at inner-city community colleges are profound and widening as inequality increases in our country. Pathways advocates will have to confront this inequality head-on, for it is as important as the content of curriculum.

The college-for-all supporters would applaud an emphasis on a strong academic core but worry that this system could devolve into a new form of tracking. And the college-for-all skeptics, I suspect, would applaud the presence of a vocational pathway, though worry that anti-vocational biases would still stigmatize the option. These are legitimate concerns, and many backers of the Linked Learning approach acknowledge them. The advocates also realize the significant challenges facing such a reform: faculty development, curriculum design and the ancillary academic and social services needed to provide a quality pre-pathways education for all students. Still, this is a promising alternative, and some schools are demonstrating success with it.

Though this college versus work debate can slip into a reductive either/or polemic, it does raise awareness of a number of important issues, ones not only central to education but also to the economy, the meaning of work and democratic life. These include the skyrocketing cost of college and the poor record of retention and graduation in higher education. The discussion also focuses attention on the disconnect between the current labor market and the politically popular rhetoric of “educating our way into the new economy.” And the debate demonstrates the significant commitment of financial and human resources that will be needed to make college-for-all a reality.

On a broader scale, the conversation considers the purpose of education in a free society. The issues here include the variability of human interests and talents and the class-based bias toward entire categories of knowledge and activity—a bias institutionalized in the structure of the American high school. There is, then, the need to rethink the academic-vocational divide itself and its postsecondary cousin, the liberal ideal as opposed to the vocational mission of the college. And finally we need to keep in mind that the college-for-all versus work debate takes place within a history of inequality and that the resolution will involve not only educational and economic issues, but civic and moral ones as well.


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