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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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