I know a high school senior who's so worried about whether she'll be accepted at the college of her choice she can't sleep.
The parent of another senior tells me he stands at the mailbox for an hour every day waiting for a hoped-for acceptance letter to arrive.
Parents are also uptight. I've heard of some who have stopped socializing with other parents of children competing for admission to the same university.
Competition for places top-brand colleges is absurdly intense.
With inequality at record levels and almost all the economic gains going to the top, there's more pressure than ever to get the golden ring.
A degree from a prestigious university can open doors to elite business schools and law schools -- and to jobs paying hundreds of thousands, if not millions, a year.
So parents who can afford it are paying grotesque sums to give their kids an edge.
They "enhance" their kid's resumes with such things as bassoon lessons, trips to preserve the wildlife in Botswana, internships at the Atlantic Monthly.
They hire test preparation coaches. They arrange for consultants to help their children write compelling essays on college applications.
They make generous contributions to the elite colleges they once attended, to which their kids are applying -- colleges that give extra points to "legacies" and even more to those from wealthy families that donate tons of money.
You might call this affirmative action for the rich.
The same intensifying competition is affecting mid-range colleges and universities that are doing everything they can to burnish their own brands -- competing with other mid-range institutions to enlarge their applicant pools, attract good students, and inch upward on the U.S. News college rankings.
Every college president wants to increase the ratio of applications to admissions, thereby becoming more elite.
Excuse me, but this is nuts.
The biggest absurdity is that a four-year college degree has become the only gateway into the American middle class.
But not every young person is suited to four years of college. They may be bright and ambitious but they won't get much out of it. They'd rather be doing something else, like making money or painting murals.
They feel compelled to go to college because they've been told over and over that a college degree is necessary.
Yet if they start college and then drop out, they feel like total failures.
Even if they get the degree, they're stuck with a huge bill -- and may be paying down their student debt for years.
And all too often the jobs they land after graduating don't pay enough to make the degree worthwhile.
Last year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 46 percent of recent college graduates were in jobs that don't even require a college degree.
The biggest frauds are for-profit colleges that are raking in money even as their students drop out in droves, and whose diplomas are barely worth the ink-jets they're printed on.
America clings to the conceit that four years of college are necessary for everyone, and looks down its nose at people who don't have college degrees.
This has to stop. Young people need an alternative. That alternative should be a world-class system of vocational-technical education.
A four-year college degree isn't necessary for many of tomorrow's good jobs.
For example, the emerging economy will need platoons of technicians able to install, service, and repair all the high-tech machinery filling up hospitals, offices, and factories.
And people who can upgrade the software embedded in almost every gadget you buy.
Today it's even hard to find a skilled plumber or electrician.
Yet the vocational and technical education now available to young Americans is typically underfunded and inadequate. And too often denigrated as being for "losers."
These programs should be creating winners.
Germany -- whose median wage (after taxes and transfers) is higher than ours -- gives many of its young people world-class technical skills that have made Germany a world leader in fields such as precision manufacturing.
A world-class technical education doesn't have to mean young people's fates are determined when they're fourteen.
Instead, rising high-school seniors could be given the option of entering a program that extends a year or two beyond high school and ends with a diploma acknowledging their technical expertise.
Community colleges -- the under-appreciated crown jewels of America's feeble attempts at equal opportunity -- could be developing these curricula. Businesses could be advising on the technical skills they'll need, and promising jobs to young people who complete their degrees with good grades.
Government could be investing enough money to make these programs thrive. (And raising taxes on top incomes enough to temper the wild competition for admission to elite colleges that grease the way to those top incomes.)
Instead, we continue to push most of our young people through a single funnel called a four-year college education -- a funnel so narrow it's causing applicants and their parents excessive stress and worry about "getting in;" that's too often ill suited and unnecessary, and far too expensive; and that can cause college dropouts to feel like failures for the rest of their lives.
It's time to give up the idea that every young person has to go to college, and start offering high-school seniors an alternative route into the middle class.
ROBERT B. REICH's film "Inequality for All" is now available on DVD and blu-ray, and on Netflix. Watch the trailer below:
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It’s an article of faith in the school reform community that we should be striving to prepare all students for success in college—if not a four-year degree, then some other recognized and reputable post-secondary credential. The rationale is clear and generally compelling; as a recent Pew study reiterated, people who graduate from college earn significantly more than those who do not. Other research indicates that low-income students in particular benefit from college, becoming nearly three times more likely to make it into the middle class than their peers who earn some (or no) college credits. And it’s not just about money: College graduates are also healthier, more involved in their communities, and happier in their jobs.
Thus, in the reformers’ bible, the greatest sin is to look a student in the eye and say, “Kid, I’m sorry, but you’re just not college material.”
But what if such a cautionary sermon is exactly what some teenagers need? What if encouraging students to take a shot at the college track—despite very long odds of crossing its finish line—does them more harm than good? What if our own hyper-credentialed life experiences and ideologies are blinding us to alternative pathways to the middle class? Including some that might be a lot more viable for a great many young people? What if we should be following the lead of countries like Germany, where “tracking” isn’t a dirty word but a common-sense way to prepare teenagers for respected, well-paid work?
Here’s a stark fact: According to research by Georgetown’s Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, less than 10 percent of poor children now graduate with a four-year college degree. Imagine that all of our reform efforts prove successful, from initiatives to bolster the prenatal health of disadvantaged babies, to high-quality early-childhood experiences, to dramatic improvements in K-12 education, to serious interventions and supports at the college level. Push the pedal to the metal and assume that nothing crashes. Where do we get? Maybe in the course of a generation, we could double the proportion of poor children making it to a college diploma. Tripling it would be a staggering accomplishment. Anything approaching that would be an enormous achievement, unprecedented in the annals of social progress. Yet that would still leave two-thirds or more of low-income youngsters needing another path if they’re truly going to access the middle class.
Let’s see how this works from the perspective of a student. Imagine that you’re finishing ninth grade at a large comprehensive urban high school. The year hasn’t gone very well; because you are reading and doing math at a sixth-grade level, much of your coursework is a struggle. Nor have you had much of an opportunity to develop the “non-cognitive skills” that would help you to remediate the situation. You are foundering, failing courses, and thinking about dropping out.
Though we should be working hard to improve elementary and middle schools so that you don’t reach this point, the fact remains that you have. A rational system would acknowledge that, with just three years until graduation, the likelihood of you getting to a true “college readiness” level by the end of 12th grade is extremely low. Even if all the pieces come together in dramatic fashion—you get serious help with your basic skills, someone finds you a great mentor, your motivation for hitting the books increases significantly—you probably aren’t going to make it. You need another pathway, one with significantly greater chances of success and a real payoff at the end—a job that will allow you to be self-sufficient. You need high-quality career and technical education, ideally the kind that combines rigorous coursework with a real-world apprenticeship, and maybe even a paycheck.
To be sure, your long-term earnings will probably be lower than if you squeak out a college degree. But that’s a false choice, because you’re almost surely not going to get that college degree anyway. The decision is whether to follow the college route to almost certain failure, or to follow another route to significant success.
But our system isn’t rational, and it doesn’t like to acknowledge long odds. Perhaps it used to, but this sort of realism was judged to be deterministic, racist, and classist. And for sure, when judgments were made on the basis of ZIP code or skin color, the old system was exactly that. Those high school “tracks” were immutable, and those who wound up in “voc-ed” (or, at least as bad, the “general” track) were those for whom secondary schooling, in society’s eyes, was mostly a custodial function.
But making sure that there are real options for our young people—options that include high-quality career and technical education—is a totally different proposition. We shouldn’t force anyone into that route, but we also shouldn’t guilt kids with low odds of college success—regardless of their race or class—to keep trudging through academic coursework as teens. Yet it appears that we are doing just that; according to Kate Blosveren Kreamer of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education, only 20 percent of high school students “concentrate” in career and technical education, even though that’s a better bet for many more of them. Then, even when students graduate high school with seventh-grade skills, we encourage them to enroll in college, starting with several semesters of “developmental” education.
This might be the greatest crime. How do low-income students who start community college in remedial courses fare? According to the college-access advocacy group Complete College America, less than 10 percent of them complete a two-year degree within three years. Most won’t ever get past their remedial courses. Almost certain failure.
College access advocates look at those numbers and want to double down on reform, seeking to improve the quality of remedial education, or to skip it entirely, encouraging unprepared students to enroll directly in credit-bearing courses, or to offer heavy doses of student support. All are worth trying for students at the margins. But few people are willing to admit that perhaps college just isn’t a good bet for people with seventh-grade reading and math skills at the end of high school.
Unfortunately, our federal education policy encourages schools and students to ignore the long odds of college success. Federal Pell Grants, for instance, can be used for remedial education; institutions are more than happy to take the money, even if they are terrible at remediating students’ deficits, which is why I’ve proposed making remedial education ineligible for Pell financing. On the other hand, Pell can only be used for vocational education that takes place through an accredited college or university; job-based training, and most apprenticeships, do not qualify. That should change.
I have no desire to punish students or deprive them of opportunity. Quite the contrary. My aim is to stop pretending that high school or college students with very low basic skills have a real shot of earning a college degree—so that they might follow an alternative path that will lead to success. A college graduate will generally outearn a high school graduate, to be sure. But a worker with technical skills will outearn a high school or college dropout with no such skills. That’s the true choice facing many students.
What if encouraging students to take a shot at the college track—despite very long odds of crossing its finish line—does them more harm than good?
Furthermore, for kids facing the toughest challenges of poverty, it makes sense to think about opportunity over multiple generations. College might catapult prepared low-income kids into the middle class in one fell swoop, but using high-quality career and technical education to give low-income youngsters who are not ready for college a foothold on the ladder to success is a victory as well. If they can escape poverty and all the social ills that come with it, their children have a significantly better shot at the college path. After all, that’s how upward mobility in America has generally worked: Not in one bounce but slowly and surely over decades.
Happily, this sort of common sense is starting to re-enter the conversation (thanks, in part, to the persistence of the folks at Harvard’s Pathways to Prosperity initiative, who called in 2011 for a broader approach to education reform, one that includes high-quality career technical education). In a very important recent Politicopiece, Stephanie Simon shows how lawmakers, especially in red states, are starting to worry that the “college for all” ideology is doing material harm to students. Asking all students to pass algebra II makes a ton of sense if you expect all of them to go to college. But when you are willing to acknowledge that that’s a fool’s errand, you start to see such mandates as barriers to opportunity—the opportunity to pursue career and technical programs that are likely to produce better long-term outcomes for young people.
It’s particularly urgent that those of us who support the Common Core be willing to speak honestly about these issues. If the new Common Core assessments set the high school graduation bar at true college readiness—meaning students are on track to take credit bearing courses from day one—the country is likely to learn that scarcely one-third of all students, and many fewer low-income students, are at that level now. Even Massachusetts, our shining star, gets just half its young people to that level. By all means, we should do everything we can to boost those numbers, starting as early as possible, and including common-sense reforms like reintroducing serious academic content to the elementary and middle school curriculum and replicating “no excuses” charter schools like KIPP.
At the same time, however, rather than pretend that we’re going to get “all students” to “climb the mountain to college,” we should build a system that helps many students find another road to the middle class—a path that starts with a better prekindergarten-through-eighth-grade education and then develops strong technical and interpersonal skills in high school and at community colleges. This is an honorable path, and one that’s much sturdier than the rickety bridges to failure that we’ve got now.