Should everyone go to college?

June 5, 2009, 12:40 pm

I’m reading through a number of books and articles related to the scholarship of teaching and learning this summer. One that I read recently was this article (PDF), “Connecting Beliefs with Research on Effective Undergraduate Education” by Ross Miller. There are lots of good points, and teaching tips, in this article. But Miller makes one assertion that doesn’t seem right. He brings up the point, under the general heading of “beliefs”, that “questions arise, both on and off campuses, about whether all students can learn at the college level and whether everyone should attend college” [Miller's emphases]. As to the “should” part of that question, Miller says:

According to Carnevale (2000), from 1998 to 2008, 14.1 million new jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or some form of postsecondary education—more than double those requiring high school level skills or below. Given those data, it makes sense to encourage all students to continue their education past high school. Consistent high expectations for all students to take a challenging high school curriculum and prepare for college (or other postsecondary education) benefit everyone. Our current practices of holding low expectations for many students result in far too many dropouts or graduates unprepared for college, challenging technical careers, and lives as citizens in a diverse democracy.

So, Miller answers, yes — everyone should attend college. But the reasoning seems spurious for a couple of reasons.

  • How much of the increasingly common requirement of a bachelor’s degree for new jobs is the result of an existing oversupply of people with bachelor’s degrees? Miller claims that people need to have a postsecondary education because more and more jobs require it. Maybe so. But is that because the jobs themselves inherently use skills developed only through a college education? If so, we have to ask if our higher education system is consistently giving students that kind of education. If not, and if students should get a BA or BS  merely because there are so many people out there with BA’s and BS’s that you have to have one to avoid the appearance of intellectual poverty, then this encourages superficial education at the postsecondary level, and the reasoning here is more mythological than anything and needs to be repudiated.
  • As Joanne Jacobs noted back in early 2008 (quoting an article by Paul Barton) it’s not at all settled that the claims about jobs here are even valid. According to that article, only 29% of jobs in 2004 require college credentials, and the percentage is expected to rise only to 31% by 2010 — not exactly a clarion call for all students to matriculate. Also, Barton notes that the wages earned by males with college degrees have slipped, which indicates an oversupply.

College is just not the best choice for every person, and to say that it is merely sets students up for wasting four years of their lives. Some people may have a vocation into a field for which four years of college are a massively inefficient use of time and resources. If you’ve got a vocation to be an electrician, go learn how to be an electrician. If it’s to be a stay-at-home mom, then go do that. Both of these vocations can benefit from a college education if the person is inclined to get one, but neither requires a college education. If you want to go to college and then do those things, fine; but let nobody say that you should go to college, irrespective of your life situation.

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