Should everyone go to college?


I’m reading through a number of books and articles related to the scholarship of teaching and learning this summer. One that I read recently was this article (PDF), “Connecting Beliefs with Research on Effective Undergraduate Education” by Ross Miller. There are lots of good points, and teaching tips, in this article. But Miller makes one assertion that doesn’t seem right. He brings up the point, under the general heading of “beliefs”, that “questions arise, both on and off campuses, about whether all students can learn at the college level and whether everyone should attend college” [Miller’s emphases]. As to the “should” part of that question, Miller says:

According to Carnevale (2000), from 1998 to 2008, 14.1 million new jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or some form of postsecondary education—more than double those requiring high school level skills or below. Given those data, it makes sense to encourage all students to continue their education past high school. Consistent high expectations for all students to take a challenging high school curriculum and prepare for college (or other postsecondary education) benefit everyone. Our current practices of holding low expectations for many students result in far too many dropouts or graduates unprepared for college, challenging technical careers, and lives as citizens in a diverse democracy.

So, Miller answers, yes — everyone should attend college. But the reasoning seems spurious for a couple of reasons.

  • How much of the increasingly common requirement of a bachelor’s degree for new jobs is the result of an existing oversupply of people with bachelor’s degrees? Miller claims that people need to have a postsecondary education because more and more jobs require it. Maybe so. But is that because the jobs themselves inherently use skills developed only through a college education? If so, we have to ask if our higher education system is consistently giving students that kind of education. If not, and if students should get a BA or BS  merely because there are so many people out there with BA’s and BS’s that you have to have one to avoid the appearance of intellectual poverty, then this encourages superficial education at the postsecondary level, and the reasoning here is more mythological than anything and needs to be repudiated.
  • As Joanne Jacobs noted back in early 2008 (quoting an article by Paul Barton) it’s not at all settled that the claims about jobs here are even valid. According to that article, only 29% of jobs in 2004 require college credentials, and the percentage is expected to rise only to 31% by 2010 — not exactly a clarion call for all students to matriculate. Also, Barton notes that the wages earned by males with college degrees have slipped, which indicates an oversupply.

College is just not the best choice for every person, and to say that it is merely sets students up for wasting four years of their lives. Some people may have a vocation into a field for which four years of college are a massively inefficient use of time and resources. If you’ve got a vocation to be an electrician, go learn how to be an electrician. If it’s to be a stay-at-home mom, then go do that. Both of these vocations can benefit from a college education if the person is inclined to get one, but neither requires a college education. If you want to go to college and then do those things, fine; but let nobody say that you should go to college, irrespective of your life situation.

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9 responses to “Should everyone go to college?

  1. Will Farris

    There have been a few recent books out lately that argue very convincingly that there are far too many colleges in the US, and far too many people going to college. Over the course of 34 years now I have attended 16 institutions of higher learning earning 5 degrees in the process and still working on yet another. Through this I have observed a lot of people in school for a lot of reasons, but I think it fair to say that historically it has been to get a job and to find a mate. Some are pushed into it by parents and the money is there. Others struggle monumentally to get through. It was a direct brush with poverty when I encountered Vietnamese refugees back in the late 70’s at Auburn University.

    These days the opportunity cost of a college education is at an all-time high, as are student debts. It amazes me that people will borrow 60 – 80 thousand dollars and then get an art history degree at a private university. These folks will then spend decades jerking lattes in a futile attempt to pay it back. All that matters is that they are happy. Fine, if only they were, as they turn 40. Volumes of regret start to pour in. I see this all the time. What does one do in this situation? That’s right, its back to school, this time at the local juco learning health care, hair care, or car care. Oh yes, court reporting and med transcription was recently popular.

    Anyway, it used to be ok when I paid 183 per quarter for up to 21 hours – not that bad of a percentage of total income for the late 70’s. But now each credit is precious – 800 to over a thousand dollars for one course! Plus a two hundred dollar book! Is it really worth it?

    We are getting back to the days where only the monied gentry could afford the luxury of studying for the pleasure of it. Latin, Greek, theology, and politics along with polo and fencing. Some day I see a crisis similar to the housing crisis where nobody can pay back their college debt. Also, I have never been in a situation where there were really more jobs than people to fill them. Yes there have been times when there were shortages of summa cums in software engineering willing to work for food, but there are always screening where applicants are rejected out of hand for trivial reasons. My point: the last few decades has seen the de-valuation of all forms of degrees due to the sheer numbers being milled out. Foreign students get the lion’s share of A’s largely due to their large underground support networks, that they are the top of their national talent pool, and they have few cultural distractions like the local students. So, the ones with the B’s the companies don’t really like to consider. A recruiter at my company said that a shortage is when they are down to 3 -4 applicants for agiven position instead of the usual 8 – 9. Some shortage, lets build another university branch! One of my engineering professors showed my his file drawer full of over 200 rejection letters to professorships all over the country (early 90’s). He later went to medical school.

    I might add that at my first job as an electrical engineer in 1992 I earned 43000 a year. The typical union IBEW electrician earned 3228 per month (it was in a table I read). Through those years an uneducated electrican made more than a staff degreed EE! Only later on did the differential finally put me ahead – thanks to dot com bubble.

    The signs are very confusing as to who to believe. We need to development more cost effective ways to deliver education of the Art History variety as well as other more technical courses, perhaps. Nonetheless, way too many students to not really care about learning the material but only to get through it.

    • Will Farris

      BTW, the 3228 was merely base pay = 38000 per year. The overtime brought the figure 1000’s higher.

  2. I’m glad to know I’m not alone in thinking it’s absurd that everyone needs to go to college. Sometimes I think AAC&U keeps bringing it up to support more higher education in this country, which I just don’t think is what we really need. I do think we’ve got a problem in that the financial barrier keeps those from less fortunate financial circumstances from going to college and rich kids who don’t belong in college get to do, and simply creating more higher education is not going to solve that problem.

  3. AlgebraJoe

    The quoted portion of Mr. Miller’s article does not specify ONLY college; but mentions either or both of vocational training or college. Vocational job training can be a good thing as an alternative to college or university. His emphasis is on “postsecondary education”, and this is not limited to just college.

  4. AlgebraJoe

    Robert, what a surprising posting:
    “These have been a fixture in math education, especially at the pre-college level, for the better part of 20 years. But now here is W|A, which can graph functions, perform symbolic algebra and calculus computations, even solve differential equations and do number theory and statistics and all manner of interesting stuff besides, including but very much not limited to mathematics. In short, it does everything a graphing calculator does.”

    If we were to have used graphing caclulators in class, in the mid 1980’s, we would have been short-circuiting the skills which we were expected to be learning (in other words, using a technological device instead of learning the concepts and skills being taught, as cheating.)
    We were NOT permitted to use graphing calculators during examinations or quizes.

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  6. Fast Answer–NO. It’s a dis-service to those forced to go and to those who really want to.

  7. My apologies for the late post, but I just found your blog.

    I think this question is more difficult then some make it out to be. One of my brothers who barely made it through High School is now making six figures as an Automotive technician. He learned most of his skills apprenticing at a local shop. There is no reason for his school to fret that he failed to get a four year degree even though 86% of his class did.

    On the other hand I tutor for Math classes at the local JC in the evenings. I am horrified both at poor quality of math education, and the blatant racial tracking that goes on. In suburban schools where cost and commitment are not at issue, it is acceptable to admit that not needs to go on to college. In struggling urban schools where the system simply gives up on prepping any but the most obnoxiously outstanding for anything beyond High School, I believe that it is important demand that everyone be given a chance a college.

    Millers Paper is aimed squarely at those schools who prepare only a very small portion of their students for college because the believe that is all they have the resources to do. When 80% or more of all students are prepared for higher education, then we can start to talk about whether or not they actually all need to go.

  8. I loved reading this and I dont really like to read🙂