In this weekend's New York Times, we heard about several very (monetarily) successful college drop outs. The author fails to point out, however, that many of these people came from already successful situations. Bill Gates, for example, went to a fancy private school in Seattle before dropping out of Harvard. Mark Zuckerberg spent time at an elite public schools in Westchester, NY and at Exeter before doing the same. These examples already had funding, networking, and critical thinking skills that colleges often sharpen for kids who may not already have them.
Among many progressively-minded educators, it seems fashionable to say
that not everyone needs to go to college. College isn't for everyone. I
agree with that statement, but it invites some questions: Then who is
college for? If your child came to you and said he or she didn't intend
to go to college, would you allow it? I'm fine with the expectation that
college isn't for everyone. But in a meritocracy, it should be for
virtually everyone who wants to go. And we should not be making
assumptions about who it is for based on race or income level any more
than we should have made those assumptions based on gender forty
and fifty years ago. Unfortunately, when people say that college isn't
for everyone, they often mean kids who no one has ever encouraged to go
to college any way.
This idea that we shouldn't privilege graduation, college attendance,
and other markers of middle class life in the US is a difficult one for
me. I do see an alienating factor in saying XYZ is the best thing to do.
There's an implicit "What's wrong with your family that they haven't
been doing XYZ for generations?" that college-focused educators haven't
really figured out how to address. But we aren't going to address it by saying we're okay with not sending kids to college for circumstantial reasons. Arguments about kids coming out of college without a job or tons of debt says to me that we need structural economic and student aid reforms, not fewer people who love learning for learning's sake. To complicate things even further, we're also not going to address the alienation problem by pretending it doesn't exist, either.
The college for all issue gets thornier when we think about it outside of economic terms (are you feeling my conflict on this issue yet, dear reader?). What about learning for the sake of loving learning? I have not had a fundamental impact on the fields of ecology, astronomy, or religious studies. But not only can I speak knowledgeably at them a cocktail party where I may meet someone to fund a grant for my classroom, I am better at thinking for having spent some time considering their complexities.
If a kid wants to be a mechanic or own a restaurant or build things or go directly in the military,
that's great. But every kid deserves a plan for some sort of
post-secondary education. And I think we owe it to our kids to make sure
those plans have nothing to do with race, income-level, or parental
involvement. To do otherwise keeps public schools from being the
great equalizer they aspire to be.