Wednesday, May 08, 2013


Not Everyone Should Go To College

But everyone should have the option.

This week’s Twitterverse has featured a series of exchanges about success rates of students with academic preparation gaps, the cost of financial aid, and allegations of throwing good money after bad.  Michael Petrilli in particular is staking out a position that we should stop offering remedial courses altogether, and stop admitting students with preparation gaps, so that they can find other pathways in life in which they’re likelier to be successful, and the rest of us can stop paying for them.

It’s a frustrating discussion, because it conflates a series of issues.  Instead of falling into the “are too -- am not” exchange so familiar to the interwebs, I’ll try to separate the issues involved and assume that everybody means well.

First, the allegation that some of us believe that “everyone should go to college” is a straw man.  I’ve never met anyone who argues for that.  Of course there are plenty of other pathways to choose in life.  It would be silly to argue otherwise.  Adults should be free to choose what they want to do.  If that means jumping directly into starting a business right out of high school, go for it.  If it means joining the military, or going to work, or forming a band and trying to gig around the country, have at it.  

The actual position that many of us in public higher education hold is much more nuanced than that.  We don’t argue that everyone should go to college.  Some people would hate hate hate it, and they have every right to avoid it.  We just argue that everyone should have the option.  If they opt not to -- and many do -- so be it.

In the real world, “having the option” involves more than just allowing people to fill out applications.  It means actually being able to afford to attend, even if their parents are strapped, or absent, or otherwise unable to help.  It means recognizing that some of our high schools don’t do a great job, that “intelligent” and “disabled” are not mutually exclusive, and that most of our predictors of academic success -- even those that work pretty well in the aggregate -- often fail on the individual level.  

The epistemological issue is often elided, but it matters.  We don’t know in advance who will do well and who won’t.  Petrilli’s position assumes that determining talent is a relatively straightforward affair.  If it were, then there might be an argument for cutting losses.  But it isn’t.  That’s part of the reason that four-year colleges have become so welcoming to community college graduates as transfers.  The single best predictor of success in college is...anyone?  anyone?...success in college.  The student who successfully completes an Associate’s degree is a damn good bet for completing the next level as well, even if she started below the college level.  Four-year schools have figured that out, and have increasingly turned to cc’s as farm teams.  Which makes perfect sense.

Open admissions and thoughtful, intentional support are ways of allowing students from all sorts of backgrounds to show us what they’ve got.  Some wash out, some walk away.  But some do much better than their demographics, or high school test scores, would lead us to expect.  Many use what we offer to get better jobs and support themselves and their families.  Many others transfer onward, eventually -- we hope -- also finding opportunities they otherwise would not have found.  

The point is that genuinely open-door institutions -- which includes, but goes well beyond, just having an open admissions policy -- compensate for an epistemological blind spot.  We don’t know who will step up until given a chance.  So let’s give chances.

In the past, we compensated for the epistemological blind spot by using visible categories to stop folks who didn’t fit the mold: racism and sexism were the most obvious versions of that.  Now we know better, at least consciously.  But we still talk about “ability” as if it were as visible, measurable, and definable as height.  It isn’t.  It only shows itself in the performance.

Regular readers know that I have my fair share of critiques of current practices in public higher ed.  But those critiques aren’t based on the idea that some definable segment of the population just isn’t worthy.  They’re based on the fact that we don’t know who is worthy and who isn’t, so we’re better off treating everyone as potentially worthy.  To the extent that our institutional habits and dogma defeat that mission, then we need to change; no argument there.  If financial aid policies put artificial weights on students from certain backgrounds, then let’s change those policies.  If our habits around remediation are actually counterproductive -- an argument to which I’m very, very open -- then let’s change them.  But the goal isn’t to wash our hands of those we know aren’t going to make it.

We don’t know.  Unless we give people the chance to show us, we can’t know.

No, not everyone should go to college.  But I shouldn’t decide who should and who shouldn’t.  Everyone should have the option -- really have the option -- so we don’t miss talent based on prejudice masquerading as toughness.  Given real options, people will find the paths that are right for them.  Some will choose paths far away from college, and that’s their right.  But some will show up shaggy and unkempt, and shock the hell out of us.  That’s why we’re here.  It’s a valuable and worthy mission, and one that would be easy to violate in the name of a superficial rigor.  The real rigor comes in creating, sustaining, and improving an audaciously egalitarian institution in a political culture in which the winds blow cold.  It’s cold outside.  Open the door and let people in.  At our best as a culture, that’s what we do.

Amen. On all of it, but particularly the nonsense spouted by people who ignore the "opportunity" part or, worse, never heard the "or other postsecondary training" part because they are so elitist that they don't even know that technical schools exist.

I think your most important point concerns not knowing who will do well. It is odd that proponents of what is often the "Bell Curve argument" don't recognize that there is a broad distribution of potential performance among those in some particular placement category measured by a single test.
Spot on, including all of the reservations and acknowledgments that Not Everything at the CC's is Perfect. Our local CC is the institution of 2nd and sometimes 3rd chances. I like that. As an instructor, I like being part of that. Yup. For some of you, who couldn't seem to get past first-year algebra in high school, rocket science is now OPEN!
40 years ago, when I was an undergraduate, I was one of those students Petrilli would have felt should find another way than college.

I didn't give up. I graduated with a bachelors and went on 20 years after that to complete my PhD.

I was not the same person at 40 that I was at 20. I wasn't ready at 20 for the work involved in getting a degree, but I muddled through. Thank goodness I was given a chance to get that bachelors or I would have given up on college altogether instead of being a cc professor today.

Don't judge or condemn someone to a particular path when he or she is 20 and not fully what he or she will become. The frontal cortex isn't even completed until about age 25.

Keep those college doors open for students like I was, please.
Agree with everything you've said, DD, but from a slightly different angle. The CC's should be open admission. The entities that need to change their games are high schools. They are the ones who are withholding choices and options, by telling pretty much their entire student bodies that they must go to college. There are high schools that do not permit military recruiters on campus; that do not offer any technical classes; whose guidance counselors know nothing about industry-supported job training programs; and whose sole evaluation standard for themselves is how many graduates enroll in college (never mind that they don't track how many persist in college). And the students know that they can enroll in college even if they have done terribly in high school (for whatever reason). I admire the entire CC system in my state for doing well with the students who do want to be there (and this includes almost all older, returning students) and also trying to do well with the students who do not want to be there and would gladly choose other options, if they hadn't been told that not going to college = being a loser.
A wonderful article. Thank you very much for posting. While I am a professional educator, working as the CEO of an educational content development company,I know of a 17 year old boy who does not like school. Rather I should write he despises school has pretty much dropped out. So, from the position of somebody who truly cares about this boy what other real options exist for him other than going to school? (I think that perhaps the problem is mine. From a very personal perspective I think that personal options become much narrower when you don't pursue higher education. However, perhaps the fact is that people, including this boy, need to be allowed to decide what opportunities they want to pursue.)

Andrew Pass
A Pass Educational Group, LLC
Our local CC is the institution of 2nd and sometimes 3rd chances.

Unfortunately, your local high school probably isn't.

Under NCLB, the best bet is to teach to the test and push bad students into leaving. Trying to teach solid foundation skills and turn bad students into good students means being punished. (Down to the individual teacher level, if the local school board believes in 'merit pay'.)

If I was allowed to tinker with the system, I'd add more emphasis on practical subjects in high school, allow dropouts, allow schools to kick students out for a while when they weren't working, and allow students to come back (no matter their age) when they were ready to start again. (I wouldn't put a 30-year-old in with a bunch of teenagers, but I'd make certain the system had a spot for him.)
Everyone's developmental curve is individual. One of THE most important points is that there are a lot of people who are not ready for the college experience straight out of high school--but they will be at a later time, which might be any number of years. It's vitally important to keep the doors open, and the alternative paths free of potholes so the "late bloomers" have access.n
This is cool!
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?