In an article titled “Don’t say a college education isn’t for everyoneNancy Lee Sánchez, executive director of the Kaplan Educational Foundation, acknowledges that college, for many students, is a risky proposition.
For the wealthy, college is, of course, a safe bet. But for those from families in the bottom half of the income distribution, it’s a roll of the dice.
Yet Sánchez champions College for All as the key to opportunity and upward mobility.
The “university is not for everyone” banner, she argues, reduces young people’s aspirations and thwarts their dreams. It depresses the expectations of K-12 teachers and prematurely follows these young people into the third-class wagon. Worse still, he misinterpreted the changes taking place in the economy, as a college degree is increasingly becoming a prerequisite for all kinds of jobs, including those in manufacturing or office work.
Unsurprisingly, given his day job, Sánchez is a strong advocate for universal college readiness and lifelong learning.
Not everyone agrees, and no one disagrees more strongly than Oren Cass, the executive director of American Compass, the self-proclaimed conservative think tank.
In his view, not everyone can afford the opportunity cost of college. Additionally, not all high school graduates are ready for college, either in terms of academic preparation or motivation. Worse still, he believes the college-for-all mantra stigmatizes the two-thirds of Americans who are unlicensed or have no vested interest in entering the knowledge economy.
A recent report exposes Cass’ arguments:
- That even today, half of young adults don’t even earn an associate’s degree, “and many of those who do achieve it only through an agonizing process of tweaks and starts, racking up significant debts along the way and still land jobs that don’t require a degree.”
- While the federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars on higher education, it only spends about a few billion dollars a year on faster and cheaper pathways to careers – a strategy that differs dramatically. “of the model adopted in most developed economies”.
- That according to an American Compass survey, parents prefer, in a proportion of ten to one, to offer young people “alternative paths according to their abilities and interests” rather than “the objective of leading all students towards the same endpoint, which is usually preparation for college.
In the words of the report, “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 do as a society?
Should we pursue university for all? Or should we rebalance our goals by allocating a much larger share of public resources to non-academic career paths instead of privileging what American Compass calls “the lucky fifth”?
My own bias is obviously evident. I’m a professional educator, a beneficiary of the college pipeline, who inhabits a bubble of successful college graduates, and who always assumed that my own children would graduate from college.
Nevertheless, I think it is a mistake to dismiss Cass’ arguments out of hand. After all:
- Most developed countries rely heavily on vocational education.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, most member countries enroll 35-55% of their upper secondary students in vocational education and training.
- The country has underinvested in vocational and technical education, certainly at the secondary level.
The share of federal spending on K-12 vocational and technical education has fallen over the past 40 years, from about 11% to 3%.
- While K-12 spending has doubled in real terms over the past half-century, preparing students for college has not budged.
The proportion of pupils judged to be competent in 12and the NAEP reading assessment has not increased in the past 30 years, even though many more of these graduates are now enrolling in college.
It’s no surprise that American Compass asserts that the real beneficiaries of college for all are the nation’s colleges and universities and those they employ. His report cites statistics that show real government spending per student grew faster than for K-12 education between 1993 and 2018 — with no increase in attainment of a bachelor’s degree. age 25 by birth cohort.
There is no doubt that a BA has, on average, significant financial, psychological and health benefits. It’s also true that more middle-class salaried jobs require a 4-year degree, and those with a college degree tend to adapt more easily to changes in the economy.
But it’s also the case that the financial benefits of a college education aren’t universal. Returns vary widely by major, institution, and level of student performance – and, of course, whether one actually graduates.
I would add: one should not amalgamate very different university experiences. The difference between the experience of a student in residence and that of a commuter is huge. Ditto for a fully online and in-person experience.
A wag once described a Mugwump (at the end of the 19and liberal republican of the century) as having a mug on one side of the political fence and the wimp on the other. Let me follow this example and suggest the following:
1. Alternative pathways to the labor market only make sense if they actually lead to secure and well-paid employment.
Targeted training for jobs in high demand has an uneven track record. The most effective programs are small-scale and require intensive job placement and post-employment counselling. Their annual cost is comparable to or greater than a year at a community college. In other words, training can’t come cheap.
Meanwhile, there is currently little reliable evidence on the short- or long-term effectiveness of the growing number of accelerated accreditation programs. Before investing substantial public resources in these programs, we need to better understand the impact.
2. We need to dramatically increase graduation rates – especially in high-demand majors for students from underrepresented groups.
Many of the vaunted benefits of college evaporate for those without a degree. This is especially true for those who drop out with debt. Our broad-access institutions must dramatically increase graduation. Notice to accreditors: no institution should enroll a student whose degree it cannot graduate.
Institutions also need to graduate more students of color in STEM majors. Despite their promise to increase the number of black and Latinx biologists, chemists, computer scientists, economists, engineers, mathematicians and physicists, the number of degrees awarded to blacks in science has stagnated or even decreased. Additionally, Black and Latinx are leaving STEM majors at much higher rates than their white peers.
3. University for all is not an impossible dream – if there is the will.
During the first half of the 20and century, the United States made secondary education universal. The goal was not simply to increase the number of teenagers with a high school diploma, but to give every young person a similar educational experience.
It was an extraordinary achievement: this country opened a new high school every day for three decades and, in doing so, created the modern teenager and the youth culture that surrounds him.
It remains to be seen whether a similar commitment to universal quality college education will really take hold.
A dozen years ago, economists John Schmitt and Heather Boushey had a falling out that for people from low-income backgrounds, especially for young men, the benefits of a college education are nebulous. The reasons are obvious: The initial cost. Fear of debt. The long delay in obtaining a diploma.
Then there is perhaps the most important of all: scrambled market signals. When disadvantaged young people calculate the financial return of a college degree, they are not looking at the top graduates from selective institutions, but those who attended the least selective schools, many of whom did not graduate or who actually earn less than a high school graduate.
If we really want to make university for all a realistic option, we know what to do, create pathways leading to structured degrees. Increase financial aid. Radically reduce or eliminate post-graduation debt. Offer intensive counseling and academic and non-academic coaching. Significantly expand support for students’ basic needs.
And, to echo Steve Jobs: One more thing. We must take aggressive steps to equalize the college experience. This will require drastically reducing student-faculty and student-advisor ratios and increasing teaching expenditures and tutoring at high-access institutions.
Oren Cass may (or may not) be wrong in his call for faster and cheaper pathways to the labor market. But he is certainly correct that there is no justification for the stark disparities in spending for the most advantaged young people and those in greatest need.
Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.