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Should everyone go to college?

Graduating students attend New York University's commencement ceremony at Yankee Stadium on May 16, 2012 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Commentator Robert Samuelson says too many students are encouraged to go to college who shouldn't be there.

It's time to ditch the college-for-all crusade. Like the crusade to make all Americans homeowners, it's doing more harm than good.

True, the expansion of colleges after World War II helped democratize what had been an elitist privilege. In 1940, only 5 percent of Americans had completed college. Now, about 30 percent have a bachelor's degree, and another 10 percent have associate degrees.

But we've overdone the college obsession. It's become the be-all and end-all of K-12 schooling. If you don't go to college, you've failed, even though about 70 percent of jobs require no more than a high school diploma. But public policy has been to send more and more students to college -- resulting in three bad consequences.

First, we've dumbed down college. Even with lower requirements, dropout rates at four-year schools approach 40 percent of freshmen. And many graduates don't learn much. One study found after four years, about a third of students hadn't improved their analytical skills.

Second, the college-prep track in high schools marginalizes millions of students who feel disconnected from that singular focus. School bores them.

Finally, we're not preparing these students for productive lives. If they're not interested in chemistry and English lit, we still need to motivate them. We need, says economist Robert Lerman, to create a different route to a rewarding career.

One way is to forge closer ties between high schools and jobs through, for example, apprenticeship programs that train people for trades like high-skilled manufacturing.

The rap against employment-oriented schooling is that it traps the poor and minorities into dead-end jobs. But the reality is if we don't train many of our students for jobs that don't require a college degree, they'll end up in dead-end jobs anyway or with no job at all.

About the author

Robert Samuelson is a columnist for the Washington Post and the author of "The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence."
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Here we go again, the age old question (see cliché), "Should I go to college or not?" Some say yes, some say no. With 100% confidence it can be said that no matter what one chooses in life there will ALWAYS be someone who disagrees. If we look to please everyone we will constantly be jumping from one foot to the next, always wondering who we are, where we stand and where we are going. I am 100% confident in saying to Mr. Samuelson that his viewpoint is completely wrong, misguided and narrow minded when it comes to many Americans, including myself.

In a world that is becoming more and more competitive with higher levels of standards required to simply "get by," higher education is even more critical. Yes, I agree that when an individual comes out of college he or she may not have the "perfect" skills for a specific job. In my opinion that is EXACTLY the way it should be and I would be glad to expound if asked. The new graduate might not remember everything about the education just received, nor have perfect analytical skills. The individual might have cheated their way through school, or had everything handed to them on a silver platter. Or, the individual might have struggled financially and scholastically every step of the way to complete his or her education by working hard and living by the rules. But, one thing is for sure; everyone is different in where they are in life and all have different reasons for choosing their path.

Education is a choice, and should remain a choice. If a person feels inclined to obtain an education, they should be allowed to do so, whether people like Mr. Samuelson believe it to be right, or not. It is up to the individual to accept the sacrifices involved with that choice.

Mr. Samuelson is right when he says that education does not guarantee a job and that it does not guarantee a person know everything about a specific job. I can personally attest that education does not ultimately guarantee the right to anything in life. In economic times like today the rain falls on everyone; both the educated and uneducated alike. However, what higher education does do is make it very clear that a person leaves “nothing on the field.” It makes it very clear that a person has done everything they can, could and would do to be a positive, functioning part of family, the workplace and the community. Everyone is proven differently and NO ONE has the right to judge a man until they have walked an entire life in his or her shoes.

If Mr. Samuelson and people like him choose to discourage higher education then they are certainly entitled to their opinion. But know this; I will stand firm against those who look to destroy education in this country. And, the division we as a nation are experiencing today because of issues like this will only be driven deeper, stronger and with greater intensity. The mentality that throws torts at a person for wanting to better themselves is nothing more than an evil attempt to degrade others. This degradation comes from pride, fear, jealousy and selfishness; and it is sad to see happen. If we learn to respect one another’s choices, and give hand to need when necessary, this division will be minimized. But, an inflammatory article like the one Mr. Samuelson writes does just the opposite. This type of article incites division and promotes a judgmental mindset.

Personally, I am doing “all I can” to be “all that I can be” in life. Obtaining a higher level of education is a very small part of that venture. It gets really old every time I turn around to witness another “néa sayer” like Mr. Samuelson.

I am proud to be an American where I have the right to be free, to choose, to learn and to recover from mistakes in life. Second chances are a good thing and should be welcomed by all. It is too bad Mr. Samuelson disagrees.

THANK YOU Mr. Samuelson! As a special education teacher for kids with emotional and behavioral needs, I couldn't agree with you more. I cringe every time someone says "college begins with K", because #1 it doesn't, it begins with the letter c and #2 every job does not require a BA.

The students I teach have the intellectual skills, but their emotional stresses/behaviors make them unwelcome in a traditional classroom. Getting suspended helps them avoid tasks they aren't good at or need help in, such as reading and writing. So, when my students graduate, their skills look more like a block of Swiss cheese because of the skills they've missed due to their behaviors and punishments. There are a great deal of things that need to change in public education and graduating kids with actual SKILLS is critical.

I freely admit to being a nerd and LOVE school, but I also worry that saying everyone MUST go to college sets our society up for failure. I knew I wanted to go to college, so when I was told that couldn't go because of my visual impairment, it made me work even harder to prove that I belonged there. I want the kids I teach to have a choice as to whether they'd like to go on to further education, which means we have to provide a quality K-12 experience for ALL students, not just those identified as "college bound". We need to restore the respect of technical schools and give kids the opportunity to explore careers that are "hands on". I tell my students all the time, my plumber makes more than I do and I have a MS Ed from an Ivy League school!

So no, not everyone needs to go to college, but EVERYONE needs to be a productive member of society to the best of his/her ability.

I graduated in 1995 with a Bachelor of Fine Art and my concentration in metalsmithing and jewelry. I went for an art degree because, of course, college was expected and "necessary," and I knew by the end of high school that my strengths were creative in nature, but didn't know exactly what my options were for a career - I assumed I would get those questions answered by the time I graduated with a plan. I had a great time, enjoyed learning in a higher education environment, and doing a lot of conceptualizing around art was fun, but I'm not sure it was worth it. I worked my way through and lived with my parents because I couldn't afford the away from home college experience and didn't quality for financial aid. After graduation, I had a pile of debt (I couldn't work enough to keep up with tuition each term, even though it was much less expensive than it is now), so I went full time at the medical office where I was already working.

One thing led to another as it often does, I got trapped because I needed the paycheck, realized there was an opportunity to double it by working for myself as a medical transcriptionist, and nearly 20 years later, I'm doing that for a living, totally self taught - a pretty good living for a long time from an income perspective, but so much for my expensive art degree and my dream. I'm also going to be out of a job in transcription sooner than later due to changes within the industry, outsourcing, voice activated software and electronic medical records, and I haven't been able to take a cost of living increase since I started because of those trends, so there's that.....

I still make and sell some jewelry as a sideline, which after all these years I hope to still grow into a full time gig because I love it and it's my passion, but I know now that I should have taken adult ed classes and worked a bench job with a goldsmith to develop my skills, and maybe some business courses to help with my entrepreneurial goals. It would have been far less expensive, I would have learned more about the actual trade I wanted to get into, and I'd probably have an established wholesale/retail jewelry design and manufacturing studio by now.

Anymore, I think I would tell kids and young adults to figure out what they are good at and what they enjoy, what mark they want to leave on the world, and seek out help, advice, and training within the career they want to pursue - especially if it's something where you get more from hands-on training than from just reading about it, and to do it before they get saddled with things like a mortgage and major family expenses if possible. I think there needs to be a lot more mentorship and vocational study, especially for jobs that can't be outsourced, particularly because it doesn't look like college will be within the realm of possibility for anyone other than the rich in the very near future. Maybe this becomes a community based effort out of necessity - those of us who have some knowledge to share with the younger generations who need it can do so on an organized, volunteer basis.

As a special education teacher in Connecticut, I was incredibly frustrated by our school's single-minded fixation on "college skills" for everyone. One student among many stays in my memory--a young man whose dream was to go into HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) like his godfather. At the regular high school, we could provide him with support around his dyslexia, but we had nothing else to offer him that interested him. The vocational school, on the other hand, lacked the special ed resources he would have needed to succeed there, and in their rush to present themselves as "academically rigorous," they were utterly uninterested in addressing his needs. The justification given for this by every administrator and educational theorist that I spoke to was that "even mechanics need to know how to program computers these days, so everyone needs college level skills."

What my student really needed was an apprenticeship. He needed Robert Lerman's "different route to a rewarding career." Our educational system failed him because it bought into the notion that people can be neatly divided into two groups: college graduates and failures.

This is tragic for individuals like my student. It is also a very sad situation in a society that faces a shortage of skilled tradesmen: carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and--yes--HVAC technicians.

The next twenty years of public education in this country look like a very bumpy road to me as our schools are increasingly pressured to do the impossible while teachers are scapegoated. Still, if we can come up with a viable model that meets a spectrum of needs and not just a narrow and unimaginative idea of "rigorous standards," then there may be hope in the long run.

This is not a criticism of public schooling, but this was my experience. I'm about to turn 31 and when I was 21 I made a conscious decision to drop out of college for the very reasons mentioned in today's show. As a child, I was told that going to college was a privilege awarded to only the best and the brightest.

So I worked very hard to be a good student. What's more is my parents encouraged me and I quickly began to love learning. I was excited about college and the prospect of answering all of my questions, but as I transitioned from Jr. High to High School I transferred from a private education to a public one and I saw very quickly that the reality of the situation had changed. The pursuit of a college degree had shifted from the quest of knowledge and the strive for achievement toward the necessity to train a working class.

I can only remember a few kids from my graduating class who went to college to pursue a passion. Most, especially the one's with the best grades went to college to get the best "jobs". I tried a couple of years, but I finally came to the conclusion that for me, better possibilities both professionally and intellectually laid elsewhere. It's been a bit of a struggle as I've had to transition from one industry to the next, but I've been fortunate enough to work on Wall St. and Melrose Ave in every industry from fashion to finance. July 1st a couple of friends and I will be launching a publishing company and I would have never been able to be prepared for this if I wouldn't have made a conscious decision to leave college and pursue my passions. Maybe I'll make it, maybe I won't, but in today's current economic climate, one could say the same thing about a college grad. People need to be told it's ok to not to go to college if it's not for them. I say follow your dreams!

I am a graduate of UCSB in the late 70's when tuition was $224.00 per quarter! This was a time when the public valued having an educated population and supported this. Where has this gone? Doesn't society move forward when our young people learn to think critically for themselves? While college may not "be for everyone", having an educated public is still a worthwhile public good.

We have our last 2 kids in college. We have encouraged them to go because we believe there is a broader public benefit in having educated members of society . This is a GOOD THING, whether or not it turns into a specific job or career. We hope that by having an educated population we can leave this place in better shape than when it was in our hands.

I agree that everyone should have the opportunity for post-secondary education BUT that does not nccessarily mean college. We need to offer more opportunity for graduates to be involved in training and apprentice programs. I have been a high school teacher for 23 years and every year I see more students struggle. We are not helping our struggling students by insisting that they prepare for an educational goal they neither want nor can obtain. wse need to prepare them for the jobs that are really there not for bewing what we think they should do.

Hear, hear! As the child of a college professor I believed that all worthy people had a college degree, but after teaching English at the college level myself, I realized there is something very wrong with that world view. I had many very bright students who would have been better off in a vocational or apprentice setting. (That's sounds pejorative, doesn't it? See first sentence.) Germany and Japan have the right idea in dividing students according to abilities and goals after middle school---although in the US students should have more say in the process than students in Germany and Japan. Let's not depend on test scores to pigeonhole students.

I spent four years at Ohio University before I decided to leave school and learn carpentry and remodeling. Once on this path I studied, read, checked out how-to videos from the library, subscribed to trade magazines, called upon others with more experience for advice and generally emersed myself in the field. I without a doubt learned more in my first year out of school than I did my entire four years in college. I am now a highly-valued employee at a top high-end remodeler in Columbus, Ohio - and I LOVE my job. While I recognize the importance of a degree for many career paths, I would urge high school graduates to consider options outside of that particular box. By the way - I was hired into my company of choice in 2009 (yes, a construction-related job offer in '09!)

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