Is College for All? Does a Proposed Two-Tier System Work?

5 years ago

Sometime in the next few months, my son will receive an acceptance letter to college. And with it, a bill. A big bill. A bill so big it will shape his future, defining what he does in the classroom and after graduation because the schools to which he is applying will cost him (and us, his parents) upwards of half a million dollars.

Which begs the question, is it worth it?

Congratulations!The notion that college is the ticket to the American dream has meant a significant increase in students applying and getting in to college. In fact, the total number of college students increased from 7.4 million in 1984 to 10.8 million in 2009. Sure, lots more kids are going to college, but they are not staying.

The college graduation rate hovers around 56%. At some colleges, it’s as low as 26%. One, Southern University of New Orleans, graduates only 5% of students annually. This systemic failure surely reflects a broken construct.

Further, the ongoing (and many would say, unconscionable) rise in college tuition means the average debt upon graduation is $24,000. Given the dismal job market for recent graduates, many are beginning to question the real value of a college education.

Educational experts argue “college for all” is a flawed model. Now, they are advocating for an alternative path: vocational training. They may be on to something.

Robert Schwartz, academic dean and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) says, “We are the only developed nation that depends so exclusively on its higher education system as the sole institutional vehicle to help young people transition from secondary school to careers, and from adolescence to adulthood.”

In fact, according to a recent report by the HGSE, “the United States is expected to create 47 million jobs in the 10-year period ending in 2018, but only a third of these jobs will require a bachelor’s or higher degree. Almost as many jobs -- some 30 percent -- will only require an associate’s degree or a post-secondary occupational credential.”

Why not, they suggest, follow in the footsteps of most other industrialized nations and develop a two-tiered system, one that focuses on academic learning and the other that is vocational. The HGSE report states that “in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland, after grade 9 or 10 between 40 and 70 percent of young people opt for an educational program that typically combines classroom and workplace learning over the next three years.”

It seems like a credible solution. My mother-in-law substitute teaches at a vocational high school outside of Boston. She says, “We still need plumbers, electricians, mechanics, hair dressers, receptionists and they don’t necessarily need to spend all that money on a college education, which won’t even help in their chosen careers.”

Educational reformists argue this will help disadvantaged youths in particular. The trends may be with them. In many cases, college dropouts are students from minority and low-income families. In 2009, the dropout rates for whites was just over 5%, for blacks 9%, and for Latinos nearly 18%. The reason? A recent article in Washington Monthly says, “Nationwide, low-income minority students are disproportionately steered toward colleges not where they’re most likely to succeed, but where they’re most likely to fail.” For them, a vocational option just might be the solution.

But, is it really? The lifetime earnings gap between those with a high school education and those with a college degree is estimated now to be close to million. According the HGSE report, in 2008, median earnings of workers with bachelor’s degrees were 65% higher than those of high school graduates ($55,700 vs. $33,800). Similarly, workers with associate’s degrees earned 73 percent more than those who had not completed high school ($42,000 vs. $24,300).

What does it mean for our society if we begin tracking low-income and, in particular low-income minority students, into trade jobs? The upside is they may well find work that allows them to support themselves and their families. But the downside seems perilously close to resulting in more stratification of an already stratified society.

I worry that college campuses will begin to look like they did before World War II: white and privileged. The only difference? It won’t be men who are in the classrooms, it will be women.

Currently, 60% of college students are female. They also make up 57% of college graduates. They earn 60% of masters degrees and are half of all law and medical degrees. And now, women hold 51% of managerial and professional jobs. Women, according to a recent article in the the Atlantic Monthly (called not ironically, "The End of Men"), are better suited to the needs of the future working world where collaborative thinking and multi-tasking skills are essential.

If we embark on an ambitious campaign to foster a two-tiered educational system, the college of the future may well be a vast wasteland of white female faces. At so many levels these just doesn’t seem right.

But all of these debates miss one important point: college is not just a path to employment, it is also a chance to learn and grow. It is often in college where students meet for the first time great philosophers and thinkers who have shaped our history and society. College offers students the opportunity to ask why and to search for answers. It is also in college (at least the college of today) where students interact with others from different countries and ethnicities and even socio-economic backgrounds. If we start tracking kids, doesn't that ultimately limit their world?

I worry about the unintended consequences of a two-tiered system like the one proposed by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Much research has shown that college graduates are more likely to vote, to marry (and stay married), to buy homes and to have children who go to college. It’s a spiral of engagement that is foundational to the health of our society and economy. Will a two-tiered system deliver us a three tiered society: College educated and wealthy, vocationally educated and getting by, and finally the truly disadvantaged who are none of the above?

I don’t doubt our system is broken. But, I tend to agree with Kati Haycock, President of Education Trust, who believes there is a double standard. She says, “There’s always a reason to worry when prescriptions for other peoples’ children differ from prescriptions for our own children.”

BlogHers weigh in:

Anna who blogs at Productivity 501 taps into a wealth of opinions on why college makes sense.

Anita Bruzzese says parents remain stubbornly affixed to the notion that a child must attend college for a professional degree to get a good job.

Gina Hasket reminds us there is a big difference between education and getting a degree: “Like pantyhose, one type or size of education does not fit all people.”

What do you think of a two-tiered system. Is it the solution to our education woes?

Gloria Steinem once said, "The first problem for all of us, women and men, is not to learn but to unlearn." I am working on unlearning each and every day. How about you? Lisen

Photo Credit: mt 23.

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