Michael J. Perrill tells some hard truths about higher education, sounding a theme that’s been a staple here—college just isn’t for everyone:
But our system isn’t rational, and it doesn’t like to acknowledge long odds. Perhaps it used to, but this sort of realism was judged to be deterministic, racist, and classist. And for sure, when judgments were made on the basis of ZIP code or skin color, the old system was exactly that. Those high school “tracks” were immutable, and those who wound up in “voc-ed” (or, at least as bad, the “general” track) were those for whom secondary schooling, in society’s eyes, was mostly a custodial function.
But making sure that there are real options for our young people—options that include high-quality career and technical education—is a totally different proposition. We shouldn’t force anyone into that route, but we also shouldn’t guilt kids with low odds of college success—regardless of their race or class—to keep trudging through academic coursework as teens. Yet it appears that we are doing just that; according to Kate Blosveren Kreamer of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education, only 20 percent of high school students “concentrate” in career and technical education, even though that’s a better bet for many more of them. Then, even when students graduate high school with seventh-grade skills, we encourage them to enroll in college, starting with several semesters of “developmental” education.
This might be the greatest crime. How do low-income students who start community college in remedial courses fare? According to the college-access advocacy group Complete College America, less than 10 percent of them complete a two-year degree within three years. Most won’t ever get past their remedial courses. Almost certain failure.
Yesterday when I worked as an election judge I worked with one guy who was a powder coater by trade and another who made acoustic equipment. It was like a breath of fresh air. Neither of these guys was stupid but neither was an intellectual, either. We found a good deal of common ground. I had more fun chatting with them than I have in a long time.
I think the problem that we have had as a country is that we’ve over-emphasized college educations and what used to be called “learned professions” at the expense of building, making, mining, growing, and so on. If real people with real levels of ability are going to make their homes here we need a diverse economy in which people with a broad variety of skills and talents can prosper rather than one in which only a few people with narrow sets of talents and skills can and we should do what it takes to see that happens.
If that means that Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg or Warren Buffett or Michael Bloomberg can only make $1 billion rather than $50 billion, so be it.