This Is Why College Is Not For Everyone

A new essay argues technical training programs should be improved.

Aug. 14, 2013— -- The Obama administration has pushed a college education as a pathway to success and in many ways, they're right. A college degree can make finding a job and earning a living a lot easier.

Proponents of the college-for-all model see it as a way to give poor, minority kids a level playing field.

But is it for everybody?

That question is so emotionally charged that reasonable responses often get lost in the din.

Now a new essay in the current issue of Wilson Quarterly, a publication of the Wilson Center think tank points out that it's worth a debate.

Technical classes like mechanics have been cut from high schools, with students encouraged, and a few would argue brainwashed, into thinking college is the only road to a productive adult life. And yet just eight percent of low-income kids in the United States earn a bachelor's degree by the time they reach their mid-20s, compared to more than 80 percent of students from the top income quartile, the author points out.

"[W]hat could be more pragmatic than acknowledging that in cities where more than half of students fail tests of basic academic skills, imposing purely academic aspirations might be a fool's errand?" reads the essay.

That is not to say that instructors should abandon the college idea entirely when it comes to their most vulnerable students -- usually low-income, minorities. That would be ludicrous. There are plenty of poor minority students who excel at college when they're given the chance and there are countless upper-income white kids who fail miserably.

So, why not emphasize both career and technical training?

After all, mechanics and electricians are some of the few people who don't have to worry about outsourcing.

But it's not that easy.

Opponents of the idea rightly point out that at the present time, many of those programs are dismal. Outdated would be a kind word.

Part of that is because they have been discarded in favor of the college-for-all approach.

But the essay also points out another, more sinister reason.

"Many of them were designed not out of a desire to prepare students for high-wage jobs in growing technical fields, but on the basis of classist, racist assumptions that low-income students and children of color cannot learn at high levels."

Clearly, that assumption is flat-out inaccurate. A better path would be one that recognizes both college and technical training as legitimate paths to success.

That would mean a wider variety of course options in high school and beyond, and more hands-on experience and less time sitting at a desk, staring at a whiteboard. Effective programs, as the essay points out, would also work with potential employers in the area to determine a target skill set.

Right now, people who drop out of college their sophomore year may not have many marketable skills. Someone who has completed a plumbing course, on the other hand, is well on his way to a solid career.

As the essay points out, people advocating more technical training programs don't agree on how to implement them, so they haven't presented a unified front.

College is not a cure-all, nor is technical training. But both should be options that can lead to success. And students should have a say over which goals they pursue. Not everyone will thrive or wants to thrive in college, and not everyone will succeed or wants to succeed in technical training. But we should respect both paths, and the people most impacted by this should have more than one option.