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Rationing Knowledge: The 'College for Some' Movement

Concerned about soaring college tuition, low graduation and high remediation rates, and growth in U.S. jobs that do not require bachelor's degrees, an increasingly vocal crowd has adopted a "college for some!" mantra.

Instead of seeking to contain costs, boost retention and graduation rates, and increase the level and quality of jobs available, the "college for some" movement advocates rationing access to college. They say we should be investing more in high school vocational programs and apprenticeships. And, they tell us, these policy proposals have young people's (and taxpayers') best interests at heart.

Don't be fooled.

In reality, we already ration college-going opportunities far too much in this country, especially for the growing numbers of low-income students and students of color. High school graduates from poor and minority backgrounds are still less likely to enter college than their more affluent counterparts. In fact, despite gains in recent decades, low-income students still attend college at lower rates than did wealthy students 30 years ago. And if the "college for some" crowd gets its way, this divide would continue to grow and damage our democracy.

Consider some of their flawed arguments:

Flawed Argument #1: Not all students are interested in going to college nor do they have the capacity to attend. We should college-prepare only those who are interested and capable.

Interest and capacity are not innate; they are developed over time. Recent research indicates that the best predictor of student enrollment in college is attending a high school with a strong college-going culture. The same goes for "capacity": Talent grows best when cultivated.

And yet low-income and minority students continue to be clustered in K-12 schools where we spend less, expect less, teach them less, and assign them our least qualified teachers -- so even when they do develop college aspirations and qualifications for admission, they end up enrolling at a less selective institution or they do not attend college at all. More than half of America's low-income students "under match" when picking a college, which is double the rate among their wealthier classmates.

Flawed Argument #2: There are more college graduates than there are jobs requiring college, while many fine-paying jobs are out there that don't require a degree. Do you know how much I had to pay an electrician to rewire my garage door? That guy is making a darn good living.

The competitiveness of the United States depends to a great extent on the educational level of its workforce. It determines the flow of investments and where the best paying jobs remain. Projections indicate that by 2018, 63 percent of new and replacement jobs will require at least some college, and more than half of those will need at least a bachelor's degree.

Educating students for college means educating them well, which is good for all students, not only those who end up going. In fact, according to ACT, the math and reading skills required by electricians, construction workers, upholsterers and plumbers match what's necessary to do well in college courses. A solid K-12 education is a good public investment that will result not only in a better prepared workforce but also in a citizenry better prepared to participate effectively in a democratic society.

Flawed Argument #3: Bill Gates didn't graduate from college. Heck, Walt Disney didn't even graduate from high school. And they both did just fine.

And some people smoke four packs of cigarettes a day for 50 years and live to be 100 years old. In the same way we acknowledge a statistical connection between smoking and many illnesses, we must acknowledge that a postsecondary degree increases the number and quality of one's job opportunities. Median annual earnings for bachelor's holders are $55,700 compared with $42,000 for those with an associate's degree and $33,800 for high school graduates.

Flawed Argument #4: If everybody goes to college, degrees will lose value. Unemployment will increase and personal income will decrease.

Unemployment isn't caused by lots of people studying -- it grows, instead, when the economy is not doing well. In fact, the unemployment rate among Americans with at least a bachelor's degree is less than half the rate of those who only graduated from high school. As it turns out, a better-educated workforce is good for the economy.

Lagging other countries in educational attainment won't benefit the United States. And rationing knowledge won't preserve the value of existing college degrees. Their argument is an example of the sort of conclusion that can only be reached when the perverse logic of a spreadsheet is taken at face value without factoring in who is being prepared and who is not, who is being admitted to college and who is not, who is being given the supports needed to graduate from college and who is not -- and how all of these issues impact America's competitiveness.

The reality is that we can't afford to continue restricting college opportunities. Between 2010 and 2050, the Hispanic population is projected to grow by 167 percent, the black population will grow by 43 percent, and the white population will grow by about one percent. If we don't create opportunities for access and success, the global competitiveness of our workforce will continue to slip and the American middle class will disappear.

Granted, college costs need to be managed and graduation rates need to be improved. But that does not mean we should limit college-readiness efforts. I challenge the "College for Some" crowd to join those of us advocating a different solution:

  • K-12 systems must prepare students for both college and careers -- not one at the expense of the other.
  • Higher education must be more cost effective -- and not just for those who can absorb the cost.
  • Higher education institutions that produce lower quality degrees (and fewer of them) at a higher cost must cease abusing our social investment.
This is America. We should be committed to expanding knowledge and opportunities for all, not just the chosen few.
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