College isn’t for Everyone

Over the past decade or more, policy makers and educators have focused intensely on college readiness programs at the high school level.  A well-educated student is one who has mastered the skills necessary to be successful at the college level, the argument goes.  I agree that we must increase rigor at all levels, but shouldn’t the rigor be accompanied by corresponding relevance for the student?  Not all students will be successful at the college level, nor should they be.  Common sense tells us that many people do not have the academic ability, motivation, or learning style that is necessary to succeed at the four-year college level.

A growing chorus of education experts are calling for schools to better prepare students for futures that might not include four-year degrees.  A recent Harvard University report summarized some of the concerns that practicing educators have been expressing regarding the notion of pushing students into a four-year college path.  The “Pathways to Prosperity” study, released in February, argued that job-market and college-completion realities demand that schools pay more attention to the large group of students who graduate from high school but might not earn four-year college degrees.

Two thirds of the jobs created in the United States by 2018 will require some postsecondary education, but of those, nearly half will go to people with occupational certificates or associate degrees.  In addition, many of those jobs have very good wages: one-quarter of them pay more than the average job requiring a bachelor’s degree.  The study also questioned whether the focus on college preparation is justified, noting that only 56 percent of students who enroll in four-year colleges earn a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s.  What happens to the other half?  And what about the huge debt they have incurred without receiving a degree?

Fortunately, many high schools, vocational institutions, and community colleges are forging partnerships that cross traditional boundaries to expose students to career options.  Partnerships of this type focus on training for higher-skilled jobs that will continue to be in demand, especially in the technical and medical fields.  A recent article outlined some of these successful programs: “College for All Campaign Getting a Second Look.”

I see some key areas for educators:

  • Educate parents and students about career opportunities outside of the typical four-year college track.
  • Remove the elitist view that some in education have.  Trade school isn’t “just” trade school.  Our world functions because of very skilled people who can manufacture and repair our cars, homes, roads, ….  You get the idea.  Additionally, our world functions because of trained service people who might have “only” a high school degree.
  • Partner with those in vocational/career education and industry.  They are not “dumping grounds” for anyone today.  Learn those skills that students are required to have to be successful in their industry. It might not be a bad idea to spend a half-day professional development opportunity by loading high school teachers on a bus and letting them tour a career education facility!
  • Provide more curricular options for students in grades 9-12.  Make the learning more relevant for those who may not be interested in a four-year college track.  As an example, (I’m going to step on the toes of my English teacher friends now) does the skilled auto mechanic really need to be able to analyze The Scarlett Letter?  He or she needs higher-level reading and writing skills, but maybe we should rethink what form those skills take.

Some related articles:  The “Career” Part of College and Career Readiness; Merging Career Tech with College Prep: Why It’s Succeeding



About mprater

I'm a recently retired school teacher/administrator continuing to help people grow through personal learning. When not blogging, I do consulting work for schools and organizations, make presentations at conferences, and research for publication. At the same time, I have to set aside enough time to enjoy the "good life" of retirement!
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5 Responses to College isn’t for Everyone

  1. Amy Wilborn says:

    Hi Mr. Prater, I am a student at the University of South Alabama taking EDM310. I totally agree with your thoughts on tech school vs. a four year college education. I feel there is so much wasted time and money on needless courses that will not matter in a career choice. I feel there needs to be more tech classes in the high school years to provide some experience and choice as to what the student wants to do if they don’t want to go to college. College is not the end all and be all to education and getting a job. Thank you for offering your thoughts on the subject.

    • mprater says:

      Thanks for your comments, Amy. It is difficult to break through an entrenched college/university bureaucracy that provides people with jobs and brings in billions in dollars. I fear that much of the thinking is at least inadvertently tied to the financial aspect. Colleges simply need students to keep the doors open. Of course, much of the public still believe that somehow a college education will equate to a high-paying job. In education, we are beginning to make progress in helping students focus on career choices. Good luck in your studies there in Alabama. Are you planning to teach? I hope so…. sounds like you will be a wonderful addition to the field! Let me know if I can help you in any way.

  2. Mr. Prater,

    While trying to decide on a post to comment on for this session, I was drawn to this posting. I have noticed the change in preparation for college since I was in high school ( I graduated from high school in 1987). We had “tech” programs that taught things like how to be an electrician, how to build, how to work with wood, how to work on a car, how to plant/grow agriculture and plants and how to cook, sew and clean (obviously Home Economics Class!). Now that I have a daughter in high school it amazes me that these “trades” are not being taught in the EXACT same high school that I attended oh so many years ago!

    I enjoyed this post so much that I actually shared it with the College/Career Counselor at my daughter’s school. My daughter attends a private college prep school here in Mobile, Alabama. We put a lot of emphasis on prepping these kids for college. Although I do feel that college should be at least tried by everyone, a good argument can be made that not everyone is made for college!

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your post! Thanks so much!

    • mprater says:

      Gina, thanks for your kind comments. I think it all comes down to us celebrating the uniqueness of kids. My son was very successful in school, earned a 3.9 at a top engineering university, and is currently a project manager at Caterpillar. My youngest daughter on the other hand was a good B+/A- student and had no desire for a four-year university. She did get an associate’s degree from a community college in marketing, and became a flight attendant with Southwest Airlines. They both are very successful, love what they are doing, and using their unique talents and personalities in their careers. Isn’t that what education should be about?

  3. Patricia Radford says:

    Hi, my name is Patricia Radford and I am a student in EDM310 at the University of South Alabama. I have to agree. Most people have great jobs and never went to college. College is great for people like me who wants to be a Elementary Educator. College is important for some people, but not all.

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