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?
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.
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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. You are foundering, failing courses, and thinking about dropping out.
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.
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.
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.