Political and economic rhetoric center around restoring and building the middle class, yet the solutions proposed and resources directed are toward everyone going to college. What is wrong with this strategy?
The disconnect is that college graduation is the road to upper class, not middle class where those not capable, unable, or unwilling to go to college learn specialized skill sets and earn living wages and thus contribute to a vibrant economy. Disappearing are the halcyon days where children graduate from high school, learn their parents’ middle class skills, and earn enough to raise a family with contentment. Getting an engineering degree and earning a king’s ransom would be ideal but not everyone can do math.
Those who can neither do math nor write an essay or poetry could still earn good living as a millwright, for example. Factories and machines have changed but guidance counselors should direct many kids towards training and apprenticeship to fill these specialized labor needs instead of pushing everyone towards college as the only success path. Trade jobs and careers are besmirched – not cool – so kids incur debilitating student loans only to realize only about 30% of the population obtain college degrees. Worse, many of current college graduates are unable to find professional jobs.
President Obama in 2009 committed the nation to once again having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world and promised to provide the resources needed to get there. There is a need for changes in higher education to address the persistent gap between the college attendance and graduation rates of low-income Americans and their more affluent peers, but unless the country is willing to fund free public colleges and universities, there should be a more focused approach of identifying capable, deserving, and motivated high school graduates for college at the same time allocate more resources towards specialized job training for the needs of manufacturing and industry.
There is now a focus on graduation and completion rates and almost every other new public initiative, research report, or news story on students and higher education somehow relates to graduation rates. This is good because it will help identify those who should go to college and be supported by public and private funds and those who should seek different career paths. Otherwise pushing everybody to seek a college degree will only lead to a growing population of young men and women saddled with onerous loans without a college education to show for. The culture of “college for everyone” only provides opportunities for diploma mills to open private colleges, mostly on-line, to recruit students and counselors specializing in helping student obtain loans they will never be able to repay.
As with other statistics, there would be problems in interpreting graduation and completion rates between schools, genders, race, and social class. But it is a good start. When building a vibrant middle class, more focus should be directed on the middle and lower sections of the bell curve of high school graduates for specialized training and distinguish them from those who are truly qualified for higher education – and fund both of them accordingly.