WASHINGTON – Debates over college access, preparation and completion generally begin these days with the unspoken premise that every American should be able to go to college.
It’s a notion President Obama enforced in his February speech to a joint session of Congress, calling on “every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training,” and in initiating efforts to expand access to community colleges.
But the premise is starting to change, as politicians, policymakers and the public wonder if the push for access has gone too far and begin to ask, should everyone go to college?
In a panel discussion yesterday at the Urban Institute here , four policy experts -- Jean Johnson, executive vice president of Public Agenda; Charles Kolb, president of the Committee for Economic Development; Robert Lerman, Urban Institute fellow in labor and social policy and economics professor at American University; and Paul Lingenfelter, president of State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) -- all had pretty much the same answer: yes, if college is redefined to mean postsecondary education and training in academics, a trade, or a set of skills that would make someone employable.
“We tend to think of college now as a place – bricks, mortar, lecture rooms, tenured faculty, college presidents,” Kolb said, “and I think that has to change.”
He proposed more workforce training and the use of for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan to give Americans the skills they need to work. “Just like we no longer have three network television stations, we have a variety and so we should rethink … the overall investment” the U.S. public and private sectors make in post-secondary education.
Lerman, the economist, suggested that the U.S. government boost its funding for apprenticeships and make other efforts at expanding workforce training. “I don’t certainly want to be on record saying that people shouldn’t be encouraged who are qualified and motivated to go to college,” he said. “I think we need to diversify the routes to rewarding careers and that’s because we have differences in the world and we have differences in the nature of jobs, we have differences in the nature of learning styles and we have differences in the nature of motivation.”
He pointed to data showing that the vast majority of workers never use the advanced math skills  they learned in school and that the traits employers value most are non-academic: attitudes, communication skills and work experience. For many students, he added, the key to getting a job is having been trained to do a job. “The academic-only approach imposes a kind of sameness on young people that’s inappropriate.”
Though there was consensus on the panel about the need to expand postsecondary offerings, there are plenty of critics. One is Michael Rizzo, an economics lecturer at the University of Rochester, who in July criticized the president's push to increase the number of Americans who pursue at least some higher education . He questioned "whether securing more higher education in particular is the best way (or even a good way) to achieve certain goals" like increased economic output and efficiency.
The focus on academics that dominates high schools and postsecondary educational options shows no signs of fading, especially as parents impart in their children a sense that college is the path most likely to provide for a secure and successful adulthood, said Johnson, who has authored several reports on attitudes toward college, including “Squeeze Play 2009: The Public’s Views on College Costs Today." 
Her national survey found that in 2008, 55 percent of Americans said they considered a college education necessary for success. In 2007, 50 percent responded the same way and, in 2000, just 31 percent. The trend is toward more highly valuing college, she said, but the country must ask if “after all of this emphasis on college, whether we have a society that respects people who do different kinds of jobs.”
Even if the emphasis shifts, SHEEO’s Lingenfelter doesn’t want to see Americans lose the basic academic experiences and understandings that are at the core of contemporary education. “The focus on education connected to work is really crucial …. But other things about citizenship, about understanding diversity, about being able to read, communicate, listen and speak are also important.”