College rah rah bah

“Millions of young people will never attend four-year colleges,” writes Sarah Carr in the Wilson Quarterly. “America must do more to equip them to secure good jobs and live fulfilling lives.”

From President Obama on down, “college for all” is seen as the solution to poverty, writes Carr. In New Orleans, the city of Carr’s book, Hope Against Hope, reformers created college-prep charter schools for low-income, black students.

At schools that have embraced the college-for-all aspiration, career and technical education is seen as being as outdated as chalkboards and cursive handwriting. Instead, the (mostly poor and mostly minority) students are endlessly drilled and prepped in the core humanities and sciences—lessons their (mostly middle- or upper-income and mostly white) teachers hope will enable the teenagers to rack up high scores on the ACT, SAT, and Advanced Placement exams and go on to attend the four-year college of their dreams (although it’s not always clear whose dreams we’re talking about).

Idealism should be tempered with pragmatism, Carr writes. Only one-third of low-income college students earn bachelor’s degrees by their mid-20s. Drop-outs may be thousands of dollars in debt.

A 2011 Harvard report, Pathways to Prosperity, described strong demand for “middle-skill” workers with vocational certificates or associate degrees. For example, electricians average $53,030, dental hygienists  $70,700 and construction managers $90,960, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“College for all” isn’t a smart state or national education policy, but can make sense as the mission of a single school, responds Michael Goldstein, founder of MATCH, a high-performing charter school in Boston.

In Boston, many traditional high schools describe themselves as college prep, but they’re sort of half-hearted about it. Few alums actually graduate from college. College rah-rah is absent. But so is career rah-rah. There is no rah-rah. I’m not sure how Carr thinks about such schools.

College is the dream of low-income black and Hispanic parents, Goldstein writes. When a large, open-admissions high school in Boston surveyed parents — mostly black or Hispanic single mothers without a degree — more than 80 percent wanted their son or daughter to go on to college.

I’m not sure I agree that educators in urban college prep charters, see career and technical education as “outdated.”

. . . I think more typically — there’s a perception that the vo-tech offerings themselves are terrible, with really bad track record of actually connecting kids to the right jobs, the air-conditioning repair jobs that Carr writes about.

Boston’s vo-tech high school is considered by far the worst public school in the city.

MATCH has considered launching an “excellent” vocational charter school, then measuring how graduates do in the job market, he writes.

I think everyone wants their kids to go to college because everyone thinks it’s the only way to get a good job. A high-quality school focused on qualifying graduates to train as electricians, mechanics, welders, dental hygienists, X-ray techs, etc. would be very popular.

About Joanne


  1. Having a credential may give the holder a wage premium until everyone has the credential. Then having the credential has no value.

  2. The value of any credential is dependent on not everybody having the credential.

  3. My Great Grandfather worked, not owned on a dairy farm. He did manage to buy a small piece of land, eventually. My grandfather had to leave for the city, because the land was too small to subdivide between all the sons. He became an building maintenance man. He was lucky, and remained employed all through out the Depression, until he passed away. His dad and he barely finished 8th grade.

    My father did finish high school, and attended 2 years of college. He worked as a pharmaceutical rep for years.

    I finished college, have a graduate degree and work in Education.

    My children all have degrees, completing them much faster than their mother and I. All are employed in steady jobs.

    2 points:
    a. Improvement is generational. It takes time to build the skill set and attitude to succeed at competitive universities.
    b. Notice all the males?? Yes, I do know my preceding male ancestors. On both sides, my wife’s family as well.
    c. Both my wife and I come from long lines of people with no divorces. My parents 37 years, until my mother’s death, my wife’s parents currently 57 years and going strong. Us? 34 years this summer.

    Bottomline: Our kids have had a rich and strong background of incremental improvement. Through perseverance and dedication, our families have built generations of successful lives. But it’s the generations involved, each one sought to improve the lives of their children. Education was certainly a factor, but other considerations are important.

    • Okay; when I was writing I added a 3rd point. Sorry. But I think the stable family is an important factor.

    • Improvement cannot happen generationally if you’re held down for generations, i.e. Jim Crow Laws. And for every generation held down unjustly, it takes two or more generations to crawl back out of that hole that they were thrown into… Sad but true.

  4. Yes, for most ethnic groups, it’s historically taken at least a couple of generations to get to competitive college level. Even many of the Jews and Asians who came here with few economic resources were well-educated; many of those fleeing the Nazis were world experts in their fields. Families also need to make education a priority. Today, I don’t think many Asian immigrants are taking their kids out of school for 6-8 weeks to visit family but it’s a common practice among Hispanics. One of the teachers in my family sees it every year; kids leave before Christmas and return sometime in February. I’ve also read in several different comments that a significant number of low-SES college kids almost have to divorce themselves from family and neighborhood because the idea that everything else needs to be subordinated to academic needs is both foreign and unacceptable. The community may well see coming home for a birthday as more important that spending that weekend studying for midterms.

  5. The Han Chinese boat people from refugee camps in Thailand are not taking generations to become competitive in the US economy. Neither did poor Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants to the US in the 1920’s take generations to become much more than competitive.