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The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy that "College Isn't for Everyone"

Mark Huelsman

At worst, this argument can be paternalistic and classist; at best, it misses the forest for the trees.

Michael Petrilli, Executive VP of the conservative Fordham Institute, has a much-discussed piece in Slate today about whether or not “college,” such as it is, is really for everyone. Citing dispiriting statistics—like the 10 percent of poor children who go on to receive a bachelor’s degree—Petrilli makes the argument that, sure, we should try to increase the number of low-income Americans with a college degree, but that a better way would be to promote “high-quality” career and technical education as an option for the vast majority of students who aren’t likely to attain a credential.

This is a variation on a broader argument that’s been circulating for some time (in fact, Newsweek devoted an entire cover story to it not long ago and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel is actively bribing students to avoid college). It goes something like this: Higher education has become more expensive, and completion rates remain low. The job market is underwhelming, leaving even many who do end up with four-year degrees stuck in jobs that do not require them. Meanwhile, employers complain about a “skills gap” which may or may not exist. Rather than spending our time trying to promote college opportunity, we should “get real” with students who just “aren’t college material,” and concentrate on some elixir of vocational education, MOOCs, and entrepreneurship.

At worst, this argument can be paternalistic and classist; at best, it misses the forest for the trees. Petrilli, to his credit, is solution-oriented and seems genuinely interested in trying to solve an intractable social policy problem. But his argument still falls into the latter camp.

First, the obvious: College is worth it. Petrilli acknowledges as much, but the facts are worth repeating. Young bachelor’s degree recipients have unemployment rates over three times lower, and earn about $17,500 more, than with only a high school diploma. Even earnings for those with associate’s degrees are 25% higher than high school graduates. But because most students never sniff bachelor’s degrees, Petrilli and others argue that we should be focusing on tracking these students—who are disproportionately low-income—into the trades or other areas where, presumably, they’re more likely to gain skills necessary to gain employment in a good-but-not-great wage profession.

This would be fine, if the playing field were anything close to level. Unfortunately, the way we fund K-12 education in this country, primarily through property taxes, erects massive barriers for students who might be otherwise inclined to pursue higher education. If that weren’t enough, the way we finance higher education erects even more barriers for the vast majority of students. States have been derelict in their responsibility to fund public institutions—including the community colleges which might house a theoretical system of career and technical education. Meanwhile, need-based aid has failed to keep pace with cost increases to the point where, again, at community colleges, low-income students must fork over between one quarter and one half of family income to attend (at four-year schools, it can approach 75 to 100 percent). To even attain a bachelor's degree, there's a 7-in-10 chance you need to take on debt. Given this, it’s no wonder that low-income students—who tend to be more averse to borrowing—attend and complete college at lower rates.

From this vantage point, the solution isn't to throw one's hands up and start actively chiding students that college may not be “for them,” but to actually fund our system of education in such a way that students can make that choice for themselves. Unfortunately, Petrilli’s solutions seem to be to restrict the use of Pell Grants away from remedial courses, and reorient our system to provide more vocational, rather than academic, pathways.

To be clear, we should be doing more to explore successful models of vocational education, and ensure that students who choose to enter the trades have the best training and the most resources available to do so. But shouldn’t we also be putting enough funding into the system to at least make it a reasonable choice? Shouldn't we try and infuse more money into a chronically underfunded community college system, so it can provide students with the consistent option of training for the workforce or transferring credits towards a four-year degree? Most importantly, shouldn't we first reverse the over 30 percent per-student cut in state appropriations over the last 20 years, which has turned public higher education into a private good?  

As long as we’ve constructed a system that provides the most funding and the most opportunity to those who are fortunate to be born into a wealthy family or zip code, assuming some students are bad bets just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.