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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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Live in Cleveland OH. Was recently browsing local job postings on craigslist, looking for part time work. I'm a college grad and work for a small family business. Anyway... Past wading through all the scams and schemes a large share of the jobs available were in manufacturing. Machinists, QC and supervisor positions were a plenty. These are good paying jobs. Jobs that can support families. And it seems there's plenty of them out there, at least in Cleveland, and not many folks who have the training to fill them. College is not a must to live a good life and be successful and rhetoric exclaiming it is should not be the singular discourse.

And, don't forget, once out of college, people with a useless BA like mine (linguistics) are competing for jobs that employers often list as "Bachelor's required" or "Bachelor's preferred" that are otherwise completely accessible to people who stopped at a high school diploma or GED. Private sector employers know they can still weed applicants out based on a fairly nebulous attainment and pay BAs as if they were straight from high school, keeping these jobs relatively difficult to get for those who decide higher education doesn't suit their skills or life situation.

Perhaps each state can create a General Equivalent Bachelor's exam for the autodidacts that could obtain a college degree, but do not want to expense w/ the time or money?

I'm a student at a fairly exclusive, private American college. In my public high school, everyone was expected to graduate, albeit to a low standard, and attend community college or a four-year school. This tended to funnel students into one of two paths: the four-year college preparation path, or the "on-level" path for the less ambitious students. Those preparing for college took several rigorous advanced-placement classes, while those who opted for the on-level courses were taught to a much, much lower standard, which was the state standardized tests (Texas, don't get me started). There was no middle avenue. High school students are polarized by the push for college - if you aren't taking the difficult and ambitious path that suits only the brightest students, you are funneled down to an education that provides a bare minimum of skills, which are insufficient for the job market of the real world. Not only has the race for college devalued a bachelor's degree, but it's also devalued the public high school diploma that used to be a guarantee for success just a couple generations ago.

I couldn't agree more with Robert Samuelson. I work part-time as a writing tutor at a university near my home. The four years I have worked there have convinced me of the desparate need for middle-class jobs for those with only high school diplomas.

The reason is, too many of the students I tutor seriously lack the academic skills necessary to do college work, at least in writing. Some students I work with, even those whose majors require them to write a lot of papers, cannot grasp any aspect of college writing and should probably be doing something else.

The problem is, after decades of downsizing, outsourcing, automation, and declining middle-class wages and benefits, there is nothing else. College remains virtually the only way to enter the middle class and get ahead.

And that’s very unfair. It takes all kinds in this world, and not everyone needs to go or wants to go to college anyway. Those who say as many people as possible should have access to a university education, like President Obama and columnist Thomas Freidman, are well-meaning, but unrealistic.

But we live in the information age and have largely lost our manufacturing base, so therein lies the quandary. What should we do? One answer is publicly funded infrastruture and renewable energy projects that would employ those with only high school diplomas (as well as those with degrees), pay a living wage, and restore the blue-collar middle class. Another, as New York Times columnist Joe Nocera has suggested, is the revival of unions. The fact that there is no political will to do either of those things is a disturbing measure of just how far to the right this country has drifted.

Blair Adams

b.adams@downsizedlivingmag.com

Posted by Downsized Living

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