Cruel Expectations: College for All

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While the Great Recession morphs into The Lost Decade, I thought I’d get some college time in as a graduate student at the City University of New York. Most of my work has focused on education, both commercial in conferences and executive education and public in the New York City school system. I applied for the doctoral program in Urban Education but they turned me down seeing as I’d been out of school for 30 years.

Now I’m in a Master’s program studying politics and urban education, hoping I can make some sense out of all the educrat jargon I’ve been hearing over a couple of decades as a school volunteer. One subject I’ve been studying is the expectation that you hear from everybody from the President on down that kids have to go to college for four years in order to live the good life. I’m not sure that’s true. Most American’s don’t have even a two-year associate’s degree, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 17 million bachelors’ graduates work in jobs that don’t require a four-year degree.

After the jump is my proposal for a term paper in last semester’s Politics of Contemporary Urban Education course that lays out the issues. If anybody cares, I’ll post the results from the full paper next week.

The Politics of “College-For-All”

The drive toward a four-year college career resulting in a bachelor’s degree is a near universal goal of education policy in the United States. Politicians, parents, employers and educators exhort school systems to produce more college-ready students. Governments at the federal, state and municipal levels run programs to evangelize college applications, promote college awareness and enhance college completion rates. School officials from kindergarten onward position college as the ideal destination, while businesses and community organizations reinforce the doctrine that college is the primary path to life success.

But the reality of U.S. college acceptance, attendance and completion rates falls far short of the universal goal. Of the 70% of U.S. students who graduate high school, approximately 57% who enroll in a four year bachelor’s degree program graduate within six years and fewer than 25% of community college students graduate with an associate’s degree within three years.  In poor and minority populations, fewer than 30% of African Americans and less than 20% of Hispanic students gain an associates degree or higher, ever.

The goal of college-for-all misallocates school efforts, derails young lives, devalues real educational achievements and creates deep divisions in society. Who benefits? What are the political, cultural and economic rewards they derive? How do they implement their initiatives? And who stands against the forces pushing students toward college at all costs?

In studying this topic, I do not propose to critique higher education or the role of the liberal arts degree in American life. As a starting point, I will define the failure of the college goal as it is implemented in urban school systems, especially in New York City. The gap between ideal and real is large and intractable and it falls disproportionately on public school populations, but even at higher socioeconomic levels, four year degrees are not universal.

The landscape of interests promoting the college-for-all goal is wide and complex. I concede that some political players are expressing heartfelt aspirations for social mobility and the greater good. But with such a performance gap between promise and delivery, I imagine the cudgel of college expectations can be used broadly to control K-12 school systems, to denigrate school administrations, to push for greater funding of college prep programs, and to enforce race and class barriers to full social participation. From a financial perspective, the obvious beneficiaries of college-for-all are the colleges, whose rapidly rising costs-per-degree outpace any reasonable return. Independent private schools and a host of commercial and non-profit firms providing college support services for testing, tutoring, mentoring and advising also have interests in the issue. And employers who use a bachelor’s degree as a signifier of basic educational attainment, social conditioning and class alignment reinforce the college mission.

Alternatives to four-year college-for-all goals comes from relatively weak and diverse sources: two year associates degree programs from community colleges; trade schools, technical training programs and union apprenticeships that teach specific skills; and social reformers concerned with equity, access and social justice.
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