Harvard: 'College for all' harms students

A new report from Harvard University reports that emphasizing college as the only viable career path after high school has probably harmed more students than helped them. From the Christian Science Monitor:

“It would be fine if we had an alternative system [for students who don’t get college degrees], but we’re virtually unique among industrialized countries in terms of not having another system and relying so heavily on higher education,” says Robert Schwartz, who heads the Pathways to Prosperity project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Emphasizing college as the only path may actually cause some students – who are bored in class but could enjoy learning that’s more entwined with the workplace – to drop out, he adds. “If the image [of college] is more years of just sitting in classrooms, that’s not very persuasive.” 

Surprisingly, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was at the event where the report was released. And unsurprisingly, Duncan “noted the importance of transforming career and technical programs, in which more than 15 million high school and postsecondary students are enrolled.”

The article goes on to discuss a little about how vocational schools are not very high quality in the U.S.:

In the US, vocational education has a bad rap, Schwartz acknowledges – and often for good reason, given the poor quality and its traditional role as a dumping ground for poorer students and students of color. And he’s not advocating the sort of tracked systems that Germany and Switzerland have, in which poorly performing students are often pushed into vocational tracks as early as middle school.

Guess what? The reason U.S. vocational schooling is in such dire straits is that all of the students get cajoled by the government to go to universities both public and private. Public and private universities then have those students get federally subsidized loans to attend, which the schools tuck into their non-profit endowments. That's in addition to whatever federal grants they get, which aren't available to vocational schools.

Ace of Spades wisely notes that the way college is marketed has an impact, too:

Here's one bad thing about propagandizing for college: It creates the belief that intellectual growth can only happen in college. Like, only if a professor assigns you a book can you read it and think about it. Like, only if you're in a seminar can you discuss intellectual type stuff.

It goes further than that, though. For many American teens, at least three years of high school are spent kowtowing to this university monolith. How many New York Times articles about families hiring college admissions consultants do we have to read to realize that Americans have been browbeaten into believing that the only way to be successful in life is to attend college? David Brooks's brilliant portrait of the organization kid is the product of this culture.

And it's not a question of relegating poor performers to the vocation track while smart kids should go to the colleges. Just the opposite. Smart kids ought to consider a vocation, too.

If this is, as I suspect, an effort to pour money into education, this time for vocational schools, let's remember that all we have to do to boost vocational schools is stop eviscerating it by favoring their competitors with federal tax dollars.

Beltway Confidentialhigher educationNew York TimesUS

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