Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Do We Really Need More College Grads?

Redefining American High Schools for the 21st Century - Part 3

In the first installment of this series, I talked about how high schools have a two-track system: advanced courses for the top students, and a one-size-fits-all program for everyone else. Part 2 looked at how to improve accountability to move instruction back to what students need to succeed in life.

Some time in the past five or six years, American high schools began to be inundated with another flood of reform. This one was predicated on the belief that to succeed in life, every student had to go to college. To that end, we changed all of our curriculum to focus on college prep. Nearly every course had to be redesigned so that it would be accepted as a college preparation course. Graduation requirements were rewritten to become “more rigorous" and prepare students for college. Algebra got pushed earlier and earlier so that students would complete more math during high school and be ready for the rigors of college math. Anything remotely smelling of vocational preparation became a harder and harder sell, and suffered greatly reduced emphasis in the curriculum.

We meant well. After all, we had all heard the statistics about how high school graduates make about half of what workers with a bachelor’s degree make. Over a lifetime, the difference is $1.2 million of earnings for a high school graduate compared to $2.5 million for bachelor’s degree holders. It’s difficult to ignore that data.

What we ought to have been asking, of course, was why is that premium offered to college graduates? If you paid attention during your economics class, you know that the answer is supply and demand–college graduates have been scarce enough that they could demand and receive higher pay. Since the 60’s, the college attainment rate, the percent of adults who have a bachelor’s degree, has fluctuated around 30%. This would seem to indicate that the top 30% of jobs are available to holders of bachelor’s degrees, assuming that individuals make reasonably rational choices in pursuing a degree, and would not do so if the financial rewards weren’t generally commensurate with the investment of time and effort.

What happens, then, if we succeed and drastically increase the number of students who pursue and attain a bachelor’s degree? Is there going to be a corresponding growth in jobs that pay those higher wages? Perhaps, but more likely we will have discovered a disconnect between cause and effect in operation. Greater numbers of college graduates, in and of itself, does not necessarily increase the number of jobs available to those graduates.

Perhaps there is demand for more workers with college degrees, although the difficulty that recent college graduates have experienced does not bode well in that regard. As the recession recedes, undoubtedly the demand will increase some. The question is how much?

Everything I read suggests to me it is likely that, even if demand is increasing, there is a corresponding increase in competition for those higher paying jobs, not only in this country, but from college graduates all over the world. As far as I can see, even were we to drastically succeed in increasing the college attainment rate (which is not necessarily a foregone conclusion), it is likely that the competition would drastically decrease the financial earning power of those degrees. This is certainly an unintended outcome.

The second question we ought to have been asking about the college prep reform movement is whether or not every student is college material. Though we are loathe to admit it, not every student is temperamentally, emotionally, or conceptually suited for college. Deeply rooted in the American psyche is the notion that we can do whatever we put our minds to. So, instead of looking realistically at where students really were, we earnestly included in our core belief statements the banal triviality, “Every student can learn.” This is about like saying water is wet. Of course every student can learn. The issue isn’t whether they can learn or not, the issue is how quickly can any individual student learn something in comparison to other students.

You don’t have to spend very long in a classroom to be convinced that there are vast differences between the rates at which students learn. Not only that, but the ability to manipulate abstract concepts with a high degree of facility, which is a key to success in college, is also not distributed evenly throughout the population. It is a mystery to me how anyone can realistically look at the wide range of student performance in the average high school and believe that every student can, during four years of high school, become prepared to enter college.

What should have been our focus is how the world economy has changed our job market, so that high school graduates can no longer expect to go directly to earning a middle class wage without pursuing post-secondary education. The halcyon post World War II years when that was true are permanently gone, and we owe it to students to make sure they look beyond high school to the next next step in their education. The question, though, is does that post-secondary experience need to be the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree?

To me the answer is unequivocally, no. Yet, does it hurt anything to prepare students for college even if they will never attend? It does for two reasons.

First is that it undermines the teacher’s efforts to engage students. By pretending that every student is going to college, we are constantly answering the question about why they are learning this material with the reply that they need it for college. For the students who are firm in their conviction that they will attend college, this is important motivation. Most students, however, aren’t that firm. Some know good and well that there is no chance they will go to college, nor do they have any interest in doing so. Others have a vague idea they “should” go to college, but there is neither conviction nor a sense of reality about any plan to do so. For these non-committed, “You need it for college,” does not motivate them to engage in the hard work of learning the material. They need a better reason, one more embedded in a concrete reality that they can relate to their own future.

The second reason is of course that by focusing on college prep, we are missing opportunities to teach specific skills that these students really will need.

Career and technical education programs, which are the topic of my next post, address these needs.

Future posts will discuss:

  • Re-Energizing Career and Technical Education
  • High Level Thinking Isn’t Just for College


  1. Hi.
    I came across your post in the NYT. I found this Part, and decided to chime in with just a quick note, before I leave the office.

    It seems to me you're missing the point of secondary education. Going to college is NOT to gain skills just to get a job. Going to college is to become a better human being. A more intelligent human being. A more thoughtful human being.

    When this is the goal, then whether or not they are served well because they can/cannot get a job, no longer is the point. The point is:Have we turned out a reasonably(emphasis on reason) smart human being who might actually be able to think their way out of a paper bag. Who knows, maybe they'll think their way INTO creating a business.

    But this focus on College as a job creation machine is wrong. You go to college to become educated; if you get a job out of it, GREAT! If you don't, you still have the knowledge and critical thinking skills that will serve you the rest of your life.

    I think its ridiculous to suggest the role of College is simply to turn out smarter factory workers. And you should know that no certification can replace the knowledge gained by an actual degree...

    1. Thank you for sharing your ideas.

      You make an important point. The university was created exactly for the purpose you describe–knowledge for it's own sake is a wonderful ideal. Unfortunately, it was historically an ideal reserved for those wealthy enough not to have to earn a living.

      Somewhere along the line, the original university ideal was co-opted and as they became focused primarily on job training. There are many professors who still yearn for the pure learning of the original university ideal.

      But that ideal costs a lot of money, and I don't see much of a constituency for its fiscal support. It is a reality that the financial support for colleges is a result of its role in preparing students for careers. Parents invest in expensive and prestigious universities because they believe that they will improve their child's ability to earn more money. Governments invest in colleges because they believe they are an investment in the fiscal health of the state. And, like it or not, that is how we sell it to students.

      The current system is here to stay, for awhile anyway, although you never know what the future may bring.

      My point, whichever way you view the role of college, is that it decidedly does not match the needs or the interests of every student.