Monday, August 19, 2013

College for All?

Having spent most of my adult life in universities, many of them teaching undergraduates, I have some definite ideas about the cultural trend in America that leads young people to see a four-year college or university degree as the only passport to economic success.

I was sorry to see Mr. Obama say that every young American should pledge to attend one year of college. What, Mr. President, if they are not academically interested or prepared?  Or do you mean the trade and technical schools that too often get sidelined by the middle-class emphasis on a degree?

In a recent article in the Wilson Quarterly, Sarah Carr brings such issues to the fore once again in her focus on minority students in New Orleans and elsewhere who, like American students in public schools generally, are "brain-washed" into thinking that college (four-year university study) is their ultimate goal. The teachers' mantra, as early as kindergarten, often is "get knowledge for college."

This one-size-fits-all view of education is not new, but Carr says that in recent years educators have been increasingly calling on low-income students to pursue a college education as America's anti-poverty strategy.
What about the programs in two-year colleges and technical schools that train people in fields ranging from plumbing to culinary arts that do not require SAT preparation and other academic skills?

These programs are seen as outdated, yet in my own area, the two-year state colleges provide some valuable "trade" programs, even though they lack the prestige that their parents often want.  The middle-class ethos of a college education for all remains alive and as unrealistic as ever.

I am an elitist, I suppose, who wants to give every talented student the chance to excel; but I see the university as a place for those who want to study and learn and have the ability and motivation to do so. I have seen far too many incoming freshmen bored with their academic studies. Many drop out, some take three years to find a major that suits them, then complain that there are no jobs for them when they graduate; so they come back for an M.A. or become depressed in a dead-end job.

If only their grade school and high school teachers had do more to promote what Europeans have long developed: a two-track system, one for the academically motivated, one for the career-motivated, without any stigma attached to the latter. Many people do not belong in universities and find this out the hard way, after taking out expensive loans to fund an education they do not want, that our society does not need. 

I know that having "college" as a goal can motivate kids and give them a structure for their studies in math, science, and language, but it can also intimidate them and limit them by forcing them into an academic mold that, whatever their socio-economic class, does not fit their talents. Carr writes: in cities "where more than half of students fail tests of basic academic skills," imposing purely academic aspirations is a fool's errand.

Carr talks about the dismal state of our technical and career programs in the post-secondary world of education.Why are they so dismal? These need a major boost among the community colleges so that "going to college" in this country does not mean simply pursuing an academic, four-year degree and having the "college experience" (including, of course, those spring breaks and other forms of partying).

Too many young people are being guided toward unrealistic goals.

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