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Who Should Go to College?

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

The following is an edited excerpt from Mike Rose’s latest book, “Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.”

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When I was in high school in the early 1960s, the curriculum was split into three tracks: academic/college preparatory, general education and vocational. Upon entrance, students were placed in one of them based on their previous academic records or a measure of ability, typically an IQ score. The curriculum directed us toward a four-year college or university, possibly a community college; service or low-level managerial careers; or blue-collar work. The curriculum also contributed powerfully to our school’s social order. The college bound were in student government, edited the newspaper and the annual, and at year-end had a thick list of activities under their class photographs. Looking back on it all, the college prep crowd walked around campus with an air of promise.

Since the mid-20th century, sociological and educational studies have documented the bias at work in the way students got placed in these tracks. For example, working-class and racial and ethnic minority students with records of achievement comparable to their advantaged peers were more frequently being placed in the general ed or vocational tracks rather than the college prep one. And there was the broader concern that this way of educationally stratifying young people was simply undemocratic. Eminent American philosopher John Dewey called it “social predestination.”

A remarkable amount of effort by educators, policymakers, advocacy groups and parents has resulted over the last few decades in a dismantling of formal tracking. Though patterns of inequality still exist in the courses students take—vocational classes are overpopulated by poorer kids—we have in our time witnessed the emergence of a belief that college is a possibility for everyone. Today, however, we are also seeing the rise of a strong counter-voice, doubtful about the individual and societal value of channeling all young people into postsecondary education.

The skeptics are a diverse group. Many are economists who point to trends in the labor market that reveal a number of good and growing jobs that require some postsecondary occupational training but not a four-year—or even two-year—degree. Some are educators (including, but not limited to, career and technical education interest groups) who emphasize the variability of students’ interests and aptitudes, not all of which find fulfillment in a college curriculum. And some are social commentators who blend the economic and educational arguments with reflection on the value of direct contact with the physical world, something increasingly remote in our information age. Though these skeptics come from a range of ideological backgrounds, they share a concern that in pushing postsecondary education for everyone, we perpetuate a myth that personal fulfillment and economic security can be had only by pursuing a college degree.


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This debate is an important one and is of interest to me because it directly affects the kinds of students I’ve been concerned with my entire professional life: those who come from less-than-privileged backgrounds and aren’t on the fast track to college. But my worry is that, as is the case with so many education debates, it will devolve into a binary polemic. The predictable result will be a stalemate or a partial and inadequate solution that will not address the web of concerns that underlies this discussion or honor the lives of the young people at the heart of it.

book cover


Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education

By Mike Rose


New Press, 224 pages


Buy the book

Let me begin by acknowledging current labor market realities, for many low-income students are in immediate financial need. These students can commit to postsecondary education only if it leads to a decent wage and benefits. Furthermore, the record of postsecondary success is not a good one. Many students leave college without a certificate or degree that can help them in the job market, and, in many cases, they incur significant debt. There are good jobs out there that require training but not a two- or four-year degree, jobs that are relatively secure in a fluid global economy. The plumber’s and the chef’s work cannot be outsourced.

It is also true—and anyone who teaches and, for that fact, any parent knows it—that some young people are just not drawn to the kinds of activities that comprise the typical academic course of study, no matter how well executed. In a community college fashion program I’ve been studying, I see students with average to poor high school records deeply involved in their work, learning techniques and design principles, solving problems, building a knowledge base. Yet they resist, often with strong emotion, anything smacking of the traditional classroom, including the very structure of the classroom itself. This resistance holds even when the subject (textiles, history of fashion) relates to their interests.

The college-for-all versus occupational training debate is typically focused on structural features of the K-12 curriculum and on economic outcomes with little attention paid to the intellectual and emotional lives of the young people involved—their interests, what has meaning for them, what they want to do with their lives. A beginning student in a welding program gave succinct expression to all this, saying: “I love welding. This is the first time school has meant anything to me.”

The problem is that historically the vocational curriculum itself has not adequately honored the rich intellectual content of work. As the authors of an overview of such high school programs from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education put it, vocational education “emphasized job-specific skills to the almost complete exclusion of theoretical content.” And the general education courses—English, history, mathematics—that vocational students took were typically dumbed down and unimaginative. Reforms over the past few decades have gone some way toward changing this state of affairs, but the overall results have been uneven.

The huge question then is this: Is a particular vocationally oriented program built on the cognitive content of work and does it provide a strong education in the literacy and mathematics, the history and economics, the science and ethics that can emerge from the world of work? Few of the economists I’ve read who advocate an expansion of career and technical education address the educational (versus job training) aspects of their proposals.

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