It’s Past Time We Rethink College for Everyone

Are we doing right by our kids with the push for all students to attend college?

College. College college college. I worked at K-12 schools for over 20 years and I’d bet the word “college” came out of my mouth at least once a day, every day, every year. Probably more than once on average over those years.

I taught at an elite independent high school and I ran two public charter schools. College was a near-constant refrain at both institutions. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the “college for all” push of the past few decades has run into some harsh realities in the form of access, affordability, value, and public perception. And these challenges have been amplified due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A new statewide poll revealed that a majority of Californians believe that the University of California and California State University are unaffordable, and they highly value community colleges and vocational training as alternative paths to career success.

And there are signs across the country that the attitudes in California aren’t unique. According to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment in fall 2021 fell 3.1% over the last year, or by approximately 465,300 students, compared with the previous year.

An earlier study by the National Student Clearinghouse showed that undergraduate enrollment declined nearly 8% and community college enrollment has dropped 15% since the fall of 2019. And, as NPR reported in January, more than 1 million fewer students are in college.

There’s something happening out there. Fewer students are choosing traditional post-secondary education, and there’s every reason to believe this is not a fluke or a short-term trend. At the same time, there has emerged an acute shortage of skilled workers across the board. Nothing highlights this more than the signature legislative accomplishment of the Biden administration to date: the infrastructure plan. There are significant resources now available, but there seem to be nowhere near enough people to actually do the work.

There are no workers

A Georgetown University study determined that the infrastructure plan would create or save 15 million jobs over 10 years and would increase the share of infrastructure jobs from 11% to 14% of all jobs in this country, temporarily reviving the blue-collar economy. But as highlighted by the New York Times, the US faces a dire shortage of skilled workers (Skilled Workers Are Scarce, Posing a Challenge for Biden’s Infrastructure Plan). Researchers and economists say companies may find it difficult to fill all of those positions.

Greg Donovan, founding superintendent of West-Mec, a career and technical education public school district in Arizona, faces these issues daily.

“We need an economically-viable workforce,” Donovan told me. “The issue is the belief that there’s just one pathway to success, a 4-year degree. And now we have no workforce because work has become a four-letter word.”

Is college worth the money?

The high cost of attending college has become a daily news and social media topic. Google #CancelStudentDebt and you’ll see tweets in the thousands. Every single day.

JaCinda Sumara is the principal of William D. Ford Career-Technical Center, a high school just outside of Detroit. Her view is that “kids are not commodities.”

“The reality is that college is the most expensive way to do any kind of career education,” she said. “Pushing college is a waste of time and money for students who choose careers that don’t require a degree.”

That said, she and others are careful to point out that a four-year degree can be extremely valuable for many.

Alison Hamar, community manager at Transizion, a college and career prep company, stressed that “the need for higher education will never disappear, but it will continue to change and adapt. Many students will continue to go down the path of traditional post-secondary education to gain the education and experience necessary to obtain careers that interest them; medical doctors, educators, scientists, and engineers, to name a few.”

However, students who are not focusing on those types of careers aren’t attending college “because they don’t have the direction and haven’t invested time researching their options. There is no such thing as one size fits all in higher education or careers,” Hamar told me.

What is the future of post-secondary education?

It seems clear that people are becoming more aware of the issue. While there are entrenched interests that are deeply invested in maintaining the status quo, it’s becoming impossible to ignore the growing problem.

Sophie Ruddock is VP of Multiverse, a company that trains and matches young adults without degrees to roles at companies to jump-start their careers without the debt. She summed up the issue this way: “It’s clear that traditional career paths aren’t working for everyone: the costs of higher education are prohibitive, the outcomes are spread in inequitable ways, and the degrees have little relevance to the jobs needed in the modern economy.”

The question now is what are we going to do about it.

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