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More College

Ross Douthat raises the possibility that a substantial number of people don't (and wouldn't) want to go to college and that a possibly overlapping group probably wouldn't get much out of it. That's probably right, though certainly no reason not to try and edge the numbers up.

December 21, 2004 | Permalink


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I've made this point before with regard to college sports. Columnists like Derrick Jackson of the Boston Globe always complain about the low graduation rates of football teams participating in bowl games, but who forces these guys to go to college in order to pursue a career in professional football? Many of them don't want to take classes, they just don't have any minor league in which to play. While I think we should strive to make college accessible for all, forcing people over age 18 to go to school is the wrong approach.

Posted by: Dimmy Karras | Dec 21, 2004 3:33:25 PM

What we should do is make it easier for people to go to school later in life. I work with returning adult (over 25) college students. Most of these people are hard workers and are interested in learning--much more interested than many of the 18 year olds on campus. In fact, a lot of them began college when they were 18 but weren't interested, had children, or some family crisis and had to drop out. Since then they have advanced in their company until they are at a point at which they need a degree to advance. Lots of time their companies will pay for their degree, but not always.

These are the pool that we need to expand, not young people who would be better off working for a few years until they figure out what they want to do and gain some experience and sense of responsibility. A decent college education is expensive, inefficient, and time consuming. It shouldn't be wasted on those who aren't ready.

Posted by: catfish | Dec 21, 2004 3:47:31 PM

Those numbers would no doubt be smaller if K-12 education were designed to inspire intellectual curiousity rather than stifle it for the non-honors kids.

Also, I often teach 18 year olds and come to the same conclusion as catfish. There's a decent segment of that population that's there because they can get their parents to pay for their living expenses this way. A lot of these people would probably be better suited for college a few years down the road when they're ready to get at least somewhat serious.

Posted by: djw | Dec 21, 2004 4:03:47 PM

Those numbers would no doubt be smaller if K-12 education were designed to inspire intellectual curiousity rather than stifle it for the non-honors kids.

As someone who took honors classes in public schools, I would suggest that the "non-honors" part of that sentence is, in many cases, superfluous. Providing the same kind of material in greater quantity -- which characterizes no small number of the advanced courses I had in middle/high school -- is not the same thing as inspiring intellectual curiosity.

That's not to say there weren't notable exceptions, though -- come to think of it -- the classes that are most notable in that regard were taught by teachers who had a reputation for insipiring teaching even in their non-honors classes.

Of course, with the increased importance of high-stakes standardized testing, and the absence of tests for "intellectual curiosity", the tendency to teach to the test (and for schools to be evaluated by those tests) means that there is going to be a whole lot less inspiring intellectual curiosity going on if the present trends in education "reform" continue, not more.

Posted by: cmdicely | Dec 21, 2004 4:40:44 PM

What I am against is enforced attendance of college in an effort to universalize it. Also a general lowering of admission standards in order to get more scholastically marginal folks to attend. Both would be major steps toward trivializing college and turning the American university system - probably the best in the world - into something akin to our far less stellar primary and secondary education systems.

A far better goal is providing more financial help to those who want to attend and have the intellectual ability to attend, but lack the financial means.

Posted by: Timothy | Dec 21, 2004 5:48:22 PM

Catfish hit the nail on the head. After about age 25, swinging college is harder to manage.

I've even thought that it would be OK to let 15-year-olds drop out of HS and give them a chit for their unused 3 years, to be picked up later at a junior college. One problem with this is that NO ONE wants a lot of 15-year-olds roaming around. The baby-sitting function of college is major. Second, a lot of HS dropouts would get stuck in deadend jobs and couldn't afford school even with free tutition.

Posted by: John Emerson | Dec 21, 2004 6:31:10 PM


The 'Leave no Child Behind Act' is doing just that. In order to meet the graduation rates set by the Government, high school counselors are 'recommending' night school to those who might lower the graduation numbers. And they don't wait to senior year to make the suggestion.

The night school program is not mandatory and the graduation rate of those under 20 is less than 50%.

Posted by: EG | Dec 21, 2004 6:48:31 PM

Sullivan thinks the idea is ridiculous. Ergo it must be brilliant.

Posted by: firedoglake | Dec 22, 2004 12:41:39 AM

A huge part of the benefit from a college education comes from the "credential effect," which requires that not everyone go.

To take an example from children's books:

Laura (Little House...) taught school after graduating from 8th grade (1870's)

Anne (of Green Gables) taught after graduating from high school (1900's)

Teachers in the 1930's needed a "normal degree"--often a 2-year degree

Teachers in the 1950's needed a college degree (BA)

Teachers now need a Master's to be "highly qualified".

But the expected knowledge of the subject hasn't increased much--look at an 8th-grade graduation exam from the 1880's and it would challenge many college graduates today.

I think we ought to move toward a system where 8th or 10th grade is the maximum required, and the next 2-4 years are easy to get into and inexpensive, but specialized and non-required.

And as someone who started college at age 23, I highly recommend encouraging adult students with work experience to attend college.

Posted by: SamChevre | Dec 22, 2004 9:30:14 AM

Wow. Seems to me that the problem isn't with the bright or the motivated but with the average. The socially acceptable level of ignorance in America is appalling.

Universal college won't help you there, will it? Those that manage to escape high school, even by graduating, often can't make change and more importantly, don't care that they can't make change.

Posted by: Lancaster | Dec 22, 2004 11:34:23 AM

The US needs to take a hard look at preparing students for jobs in this country.

The last thing America needs is more graduates in psychology, English (I say that as an English major), political science, etc.

What America does need is more college graduates in engineering, computer science, etc., so that we don't have to import all our scientists and engineers from India and the rest of the world.

Here in Louisiana, recent college grads in liberal arts are lucky to find jobs starting them in the $20,000-$25,000 range, while licensed plumbers can start at $40,000. Our shipbuilding industry can't find skilled welders to start at $17/hour, so they are bringing them in from India.

Getting a education, whether college or otherwise, needs to be about preparing students for jobs in today's (actually tomorrow's) economy, not about bragging that we graduate a certain percentage from college.

Posted by: Ryan Booth | Dec 22, 2004 12:32:09 PM

But the expected knowledge of the subject hasn't increased much--look at an 8th-grade graduation exam from the 1880's and it would challenge many college graduates today.

The usually cited specific example of this is a documented internet hoax, and, barring at least one credible example, I am not going to accept this generalization; with the caveat that there are likely specific questions on recent (at the time) history that would challenge most people (other than historians specializing in that period) today because nobody frickin' cares any more.

Posted by: cmdicely | Dec 22, 2004 12:54:11 PM

I also want to say that some of the modern decline in academic achievement has to do with our current prosperity. A hundred and fifty years ago, when over 90% of all workers were farmers, most children had to work very hard. Those who lived in cities would often work in factories. School was a luxury and a way to avoid heavy physical labor. If a student didn't do well, he or she could be taken out of school by parents and put to work to earn money for the family. Having that kind of threat over your head undoubtedly inspired students to pay more attention to their teachers and homework.

Posted by: Ryan Booth | Dec 23, 2004 12:50:17 PM

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