On Tuesday Fordham hosted a conference in D.C. on the issue of social/economic mobility and education. It produced a set of interesting papers, you can and should read them all here and I enjoyed participating. But the underlying question seemed to be whether the idea of college for all is a misplaced emphasis for education reform. A few thoughts on that:
First, when did college for all who aspire to it become college for everyone? I don’t know anyone who thinks everyone should go to college, needs to, or that college is the only path to a fulfilled, impactful, and well-lived life. I do, however, know plenty of people who think that kids who want to go to college should be able to and that too few poor kids go (more on that in a minute).
Second, at the Fordham event ideas about multiple pathways and even tracking were discussed with a clear undercurrent that we ought to be counseling more poor kids (and others) toward routes like that. This points up the very complicated questions of who decides, how, and based on what criteria? Everyone points to the Europeans here but ignores important cultural differences in how we think about education, gates to various paths, and second chances. In our country these routes have a poor history with second class education for lower-income Americans. These approaches also raise hard questions about how much we want our schools to be vocational and choice-making vehicles and how much we want them to be about preparing people to be able to make choices. And, related, how much we want schools to be able to prepare people to course correct if they realize a few years after high school that they made a choice that wasn’t the right one for them.
Third, right now about nine percent of low-income students get a B.A. by the time they’re 24, about one in five finish some post-secondary degree in that timeframe. B.A.s for affluent kid by 24? More than four in five. One hypothesis is that poor kids are not suited for college. Another, that I subscribe to, is that the outcomes we see are the result of a tremendously inequitable K-12 and higher education system that simply doesn’t work well for the poor. I’d be a lot more comfortable with a conversation about who shouldn’t go to college if it was predicated with an unambiguous declaration that a lot more poor kids can and should be going now.*
Fourth, this conversation cannot be divorced from the reality that for all of its promise technology is wreaking havoc on the job prospects of many Americans and changing the kind of work done here at scale.
Fifth, we obviously need better vocational, technical, and career education in this country. It’s such an obvious point it should go without saying. But the idea that these routes are oppositional to better academic preparation and preparation that leaves the door open for students to make choices after high school is belied by some experience. SREB’s Gene Bottoms wasn’t at the Fordham conference and that’s a shame. These are not new issues.
Finally, why should more low-income kids go to college? Because it’s the best social mobility strategy we have right now as a country. This brief from Ron Haskins (who presented at the Fordham conference) does a nice job of showing just how powerful college is. If you’re poor and you go -and finish – you’re unlikely to remain poor and if you don’t the odds are against you. The data are compelling and in fact show that college matters for more low-income Americans than the affluent in terms of economic outcomes. Unfortunately, those data are apparently not as compelling as a broad set of politics that largely insulate a failing status quo from real change.
*Not to imply that this is easy. It’s a complicated tapestry of highly-effective k-12 schools, counseling and guidance, college support and financing. But it can be done.