Apropos of the subliminal theme for the last few weeks, I thought I’d drop a link to an interesting NY Times story on the possibilities of skipping college. We should start with a concise statement of the problem facing parents and students:
WHAT’S the key to success in the United States?
Short of becoming a reality TV star, the answer is rote and, some would argue, rather knee-jerk: Earn a college degree.
The idea that four years of higher education will translate into a better job, higher earnings and a happier life — a refrain sure to be repeated this month at graduation ceremonies across the country — has been pounded into the heads of schoolchildren, parents and educators. But there’s an underside to that conventional wisdom. Perhaps no more than half of those who began a four-year bachelor’s degree program in the fall of 2006 will get that degree within six years, according to the latest projections from the Department of Education.
As has been remarked many times by both posters and commenters on this site and others, the problem arises from a classic causation-correlation problem. Merely because many, or perhaps even most, successful people go to college does not mean that going to college will make you successful. At long last, I think people are actually starting to wake up to this fact.
A small but influential group of economists and educators is pushing another pathway: for some students, no college at all. It’s time, they say, to develop credible alternatives for students unlikely to be successful pursuing a higher degree, or who may not be ready to do so.
Whether everyone in college needs to be there is not a new question; the subject has been hashed out in books and dissertations for years. But the economic crisis has sharpened that focus, as financially struggling states cut aid to higher education.
So. Trade schools. Not a bad idea at all. But of course, every rose has its thorn…
Still, by urging that some students be directed away from four-year colleges, academics like Professor Lerman are touching a third rail of the education system. At the very least, they could be accused of lowering expectations for some students. Some critics go further, suggesting that the approach amounts to educational redlining, since many of the students who drop out of college are black or non-white Hispanics.
Peggy Williams, a counselor at a high school in suburban New York City with a student body that is mostly black or Hispanic, understands the argument for erring on the side of pushing more students toward college.
“If we’re telling kids, ‘You can’t cut the mustard, you shouldn’t go to college or university,’ then we’re shortchanging them from experiencing an environment in which they might grow,” she said.
So there’s the problem, set out in all of its simple glory. Do we want false positives, or false negatives? How fine a sieve? The answer seems important, because college seems important. It may actually be a matter of, well, if not life and death, then as the first sentence of the article intimates, at least of success or failure. After all, the truth is there to see:
There is another rejoinder to the case against college: People with college and graduate degrees generally earn more than those without them, and face lower risks of unemployment, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But doesn’t that just bring us back to the causation-correlation problem? Perhaps the point of college shouldn’t be to succeed. I’m reminded of John Stuart Mill:
The proper function of a University in national education is tolerably well understood. At least there is a tolerably general agreement about what a University is not. It is not a place of professional education. Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skillful lawyers, physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings.
* * * *
Men may be competent lawyers without general education, but it depends on general education to make them philosophic lawyers — who demand, and are capable of apprehending, principles, instead of merely cramming their memory with details. And so of all other useful pursuits, mechanical included. Education makes a man a more intelligent shoe-maker, if that be his occupation, but not by teaching him how to make shoes; it does so by the mental exercise it gives, and the habits it impresses.
I somehow doubt that there is today such a tolerable general agreement.