College: Gold Rush or fool’s gold?
I remember a school meeting in the mid-1990s when I stood in front of a large parent group and explained how the school and the parents shared a common objective — moving the kids from “dependence” to “independence” — and that we each played a part.
“You want your kid to stand on his own two feet and not reoccupy the old bedroom,” I said.
Even though many heads nodded in agreement, there was something else starting up that would undermine this pact between parent and school. Beginning slowly and reaching a fever pitch a decade later, a gnawing pessimism about the future began to take hold across the country. Parents questioned that their kids would be ready on time, that they could really fend for themselves, that they could become the kind of financially “independent” people we were talking about. It was as if a big chunk of the “American Dream” just got placed out of reach, and doing the right thing and working hard wouldn’t be enough anymore. So how did the parents and schools respond?
College-mania struck America like an epidemic. Parents saw there was little room for the “average” student or “just” a high school education. Manufacturing was drying up, work was being offshored, wages were stagnant or declining, health care and housing were looking unaffordable, public sector employment was starting to lose its safe haven, and even the military wanted more. Parents heard college grads made more money. Without other options, many families insisted their children “were going to college” even if they were fitting a lot of square pegs into round holes. And if the teachers stood in the way, they’d be swimming against a stiff current.
The educators know the story. Officials at all levels, including successive American presidents, advocated the college route. Poverty (now at the highest level since the 1960s) and disadvantage were declared unimportant, simply corrected by good teaching. Students, pushed by parents and the general panic, clawed their way to the top. Grade inflation spiked. Cheating on tests went ballistic. Parents starting bringing attorneys to school to dispute placement or discipline decisions. The entire education community quietly supported No Child Left Behind, naively assuring that all students would be up to par within a few years — opening even more doors to college. For-profit colleges with unfamiliar names ballooned in size, pulling in millions of dollars in student loans based on promises of commissioned recruiters. Many K-12 schools rebranded to include “College Prep” in their titles. Metal, wood and auto shops got put on the back burner. School counselors and principals promoted college as the best choice to be able to say more of their graduates “were going on to higher education.” Parents pressed school boards to favor “academic” courses. “College bound” became a badge of honor, marginalizing students with different plans. Colleges themselves took on more unprepared students, adding remedial classes and downgrading academic rigor. A 2009 California State University report stated that some 29,000 freshmen systemwide took approximately 43,000 remedial, pre-college, classes in English and math! Obviously, misdirected, unfocused or subpar students weren’t a problem, so long as ever-rising fees could be collected and banked before the inevitable wave of dropouts began.
So what did the College Gold Rush get us? Certainly some students, as always, benefited nicely. But millions of students bought the college hype and were left holding a fistful of fool’s gold: unmarketable or suspect degrees, student loans that now exceeded national credit card debt, aborted college experiences cut short by loss of interest or out-of-control costs, college grads working as table servers and file clerks, student loans in massive default with no escape in bankruptcy and, yes, thousands of financially stressed young people in their late 20s having to move back in with Mom and Dad! A cruel consequence was the displacement of thousands of unskilled workers by people with at least some college, upping the ante for employers who could still pay minimum wage but fill jobs with better educated people. This horrible waste and misuse of youth potential, a costly “failure to launch,” must give concern to people who are starting to question the cost-benefit analysis of “college for all.”
How do we fix this? We can start with honesty. It’s not about lowering expectations but tailoring them to fit our teens, exposing them to the experiences that will help define who they are and where they are going. Yes, it may still be college but for the right reasons. We need to show secondary students what jobs really look like and help them see how they fit into opportunities. Our high schools have some good models with ROP, career academies and internships. However, we need more inclusion so students test the waters with a full spectrum of occupational offerings, experiences that cut across the whole student body and bring the outside world into the school itself. This works best in the comprehensive high school with a diverse population, not in special interest or charter schools.
Every high school should have a “partnerships committee” (including staff, parents and students) that teams up with a variety of businesses, industries and professions. Volunteers from service clubs and from the chamber of commerce make excellent partners. School drop-ins by these partners should be part of the normal week, including classroom visits, presentations, spot demonstrations, sessions with teachers, meetings with administrators and counselors and evening parent sessions. These visits should be designed to stimulate job shadowing, field experiences, mentoring, internships, occupational research and real chances for employment. For the teachers, new realities about the jobs of today and employer expectations should take hold, and even “old school” teachers will bridge classroom learning and the real world. “Getting real” about the future — emerging opportunities, a flexible workforce, matching training to students, identifying job skills and adapting to a world that seems to keep changing — must become a priority for schools, parents and students. For those students who head off to a four-year college, they will know what they are getting into, will graduate and be more likely to have real job satisfaction. For those inclined to drop out of school (25 percent of California students fail to complete high school), there will be more buy-in and motivation to finish. Maybe families will learn that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, explosive job growth over the next decade will be mostly in areas that do not require a bachelor’s degree.
All of us need to push the reset button when it comes to defining high school and post-secondary expectations. We need to get students knowledgeable and excited about their opportunities. A huge pitfall is to make uninformed decisions, oiled by peer pressure and pushy parents. We need to rebalance our goals, creating a level playing field for those who want to go to college and for those who want something else. There should be dignity in all choices. I encourage you to work with your local school to make changes.
And yes, the objective is the same: Your adult child should be independent and not living in the old bedroom!
Kent Rees, a retired school administrator from the Bay Area with 35 years of experience, lives in Nevada City. He explored and developed school-business partnerships to help teachers adapt programs to a changing job market.
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