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Is College for Everyone?

A status report on the ongoing debate.

February 8, 2022

In an article entitled “Don’t Say a College Education Isn’t for Everybody,” Nancy Lee Sánchez, the Kaplan Educational Foundation’s executive director, acknowledges that college, for many students, is a risky proposition.

For the affluent, college is, of course, a sure bet. But for those from families in the bottom half of the income distribution, It’s a roll of the dice.

Still, Sánchez defends College for All as the key to opportunity and upward mobility.

The “college isn’t for everyone” banner, she argues, lowers young people’s aspirations and stymies their dreams. It depresses K-12 teachers’ expectations and prematurely tracks these young people into the third-class rail car. Worst of all, it misread the shifts that are taking place in the economy, as a college degree increasingly becomes a prerequisite for all kinds of jobs, including those in manufacturing or clerical work.

Not surprisingly, given her day job, Sánchez staunchly advocates a universal college-prep high school curriculum and lifelong learning.

Not everyone agrees, and no one disagrees more strongly than Oren Cass, the executive director of American Compass, the self-styled conservative think tank.

In his view, not everyone can afford college’s opportunity cost. Nor is every high school graduate college-ready, either in terms of academic preparation or motivation. Worse yet, he believes that the college-for-all mantra stigmatizes the two-thirds of Americans without a bachelor’s degree or who have no special interest in entering the knowledge economy.

A recent report lays out Cass’s arguments:

  • That even today fully half of young adults fail to earn even an associate’s degree, “and many of those who do earn one achieve it only through an agonizing process of fits and starts, accrue significant debt along the way, and still land in jobs that do not require a degree.”
  • That while the federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars on higher education, it expends only about a few billion dollars a year on faster, cheaper pathways to a career—a strategy that differs radically “from the model embraced in most developed economies.”
  • That according to an American Compass survey, parents, by a 10-to-one margin, prefer offering young people alternate “pathways based on their aptitudes and interests” rather than the “goal of bringing all students along to the same end point, which is typically preparation for college.”

In the report’s words, “Nowhere else in American life is the allocation of public resources so misaligned with the needs and preferences of the American people.”

So what should we as a society do?

Should we pursue college for all? Or should we rebalance our goals by allocating a far greater share of public resources toward noncollege career pathways instead of privileging those that American Compass calls “the fortunate fifth”?

My own bias is patently obvious. I’m a professional educator, a beneficiary of the college pipeline, who inhabits a bubble of successful college graduates, and I always assumed that my own children would graduate from college.

Nevertheless, I think it’s a mistake to dismiss Cass’s arguments out of hand. After all:

  • Most developed countries rely heavily on vocational education. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, most member nations enroll 35 to 55 percent of their upper secondary students in vocational education and training.
  • The country has underinvested in career and technical education, certainly at the high school level. The share of federal spending on K-12 career and technical education has fallen over the past 40 years from about 11 percent to 3 percent.
  • While K-12 spending doubled in real terms over the past half century, students’ college readiness hasn’t budged. The share of students deemed proficient in 12th grade NAEP reading assessment has not increased over the past 30 years, even as many more of those graduates now enroll in college.

It’s not surprising that American Compass argues that the true beneficiaries of college for all are the nation’s colleges and universities and those they employ. Its report cites statistics that show real per-student public spending increasing faster than for K-12 education between 1993 and 2018—without a surge in bachelor’s degree attainment by age 25 by birth cohort.

There’s no doubt that a B.A. has, on average, significant financial, psychological and health benefits. It’s also true that more and more middle-class wage-paying jobs require a four-year degree, and that those with a college degree tend to adapt more readily to changes in the economy.

But then it’s also the case that the financial benefits of a college education are not universal. The returns vary widely by major, by institution and by the student’s level of performance—and, of course, whether one actually completes a degree.

I might add: we mustn’t conflate very different college experiences. The difference between a residential student’s experience and a commuter’s is vast. Ditto for a fully online and an in-person experience.

A wag once described a Mugwump (a late-19th-century liberal Republican) as having a mug on one side of the political fence and the wump on the other. Let me follow that example and suggest the following:

1. Alternate pipelines into the job market only make sense if they actually lead to a secure, well-paying job.
Targeted training for jobs in high demand has an uneven record. The most effective programs are small-scale and require intensive job-placement and postemployment counseling. Their annual cost is comparable to or greater than a year at a community college. Training, in other words, can’t be done on the cheap.

Meanwhile, there currently is little reliable evidence about the short- or long-term effectiveness of the growing number of accelerated credentialing programs. Before we invest substantial public resources into these programs, we need to better understand the payoff.

2. We need to significantly raise degree-completion rates—especially in high-demand majors for students from underrepresented groups.

Many of college’s vaunted benefits evaporate for those without a degree. This is especially true for those who drop out with debt. Our broad-access institutions need to significantly increase degree attainment. Accreditors take note: no institution should enroll a student that it can’t graduate.

Institutions also need to graduate more students of color in STEM majors. Despite their pledge to increase the number of Black and Latinx biologists, chemists, computer scientists, economists, engineers, mathematicians and physicists, the number of degrees awarded to Black students in science has stagnated or even declined. Also, Black and Latinx students shift from STEM majors at far higher rates than their white peers.

3. College for All isn’t an impossible dream—if there’s the will.

During the first half of the 20th century, the United States universalized a high school education. The goal wasn’t simply to increase the number of adolescents with a high school diploma, but to give every young person a similar educational experience.

That was an extraordinary achievement: this country opened a new high school every day for three decades, and, in the process, created the modern teenager and the youth culture that surrounds it.

Whether a similar commitment to a universal quality college education will truly take hold remains to be seen.

A dozen years ago, the economists John Schmitt and Heather Boushey argued that for those from lower-income backgrounds, especially for young men, the benefits of a college education are cloudy. The reasons are obvious: the up-front cost. Fear of debt. The lengthy time to degree.

Then there’s perhaps the most important of all: garbled market signals. When the disadvantaged young calculate a college degree’s financial return, they look not at top graduates from selective institutions, but at those who attended the less selective schools, many of whom failed to graduate or who actually earn less than a high school graduate.

If we are serious about making college for all a realistic option, we know what to do: create structured degree pathways. Increase financial aid. Radically reduce or eliminate postgraduation debt. Offer intensive advising and academic and nonacademic coaching. Significantly expand support for students’ basic needs.

And, to echo Steve Jobs: one more thing. We need to take aggressive steps to equalize the college-going experience. That will require significantly reducing student-faculty and student-adviser ratios and expanding instructional spending and academic support at broad access institutions.

Oren Cass may (or may not) be misguided in his call for faster, cheaper paths into the job market. But he’s certainly right in arguing that there’s no justification for the gross disparities in spending on those young people with the greatest advantages and those with the greatest needs.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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