The debate about who should go to college has been with us for a while and has taken a new turn over the last year or so. Recent surveys suggest that support for higher education among conservatives has dropped significantly, and one reason is doubt about the economic benefits of a college degree. Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos praise Career and Technical Education (CTE), yet the Trump budget cuts funding for CTE. And as I wrote in my posts for March 21 and Sept.27, my worry is that whatever support the Trump administration does lend to CTE will likely champion occupational education that is narrowly focused on specific skills for currently available jobs, rather than providing the kind of broader education that would make students eligible for those jobs and for other employment as well. (An international study recently reported in The Atlantic [June 6, 2017] supports my concern.)
The body of the post that follows was originally published in Teacher’s College Record online on Sept. 20, 2010 and was recast as a chapter in Back to School. I print it here, for it seems especially relevant today, given the conservative skepticism about the benefits of college and the rhetorical support (if not the dollars) for CTE. The question of who should go to college is a complex one, embedded in a history of unequal access and involving a number of psychological, social, and economic issues. It may not even be the right question to ask. When it is asked, though, the answer is typically arrived at through an economic calculus alone – a reductive move on both the policy and personal level.
When I was in high school in the early 1960s, the curriculum was split into three tracks: an academic or college preparatory track, a general education track, and a vocational track. Upon entrance, students were placed in one of them based on their previous academic records or a measure of ability, typically an I.Q. score. The curriculum directed us toward a four-year college or university, possibly a community college, or toward service or low-level managerial careers,
or into blue-collar work. The curriculum also contributed powerfully to our school’s social order. The college-bound were in student government, edited the newspaper and the annual, at year’s end had a thick list of activities under their class photographs. I swear, looking back on it all, the college prep crowd walked around campus with an air of promise.
Since the mid-twentieth century, sociological and educational studies were documenting the bias at work in the way students got placed in these tracks, for example that working-class and racial and ethnic minority students with records of achievement comparable to their advantaged peers were more frequently being placed in the general ed or vocational tracks. And there was the more general concern that this way of educationally stratifying young people was simply un-democratic. John Dewey called it “social predestination.”
A remarkable amount of effort by educators, policy makers, advocacy groups, and parents has resulted over the last few decades in a dismantling of formal tracking. Though patterns of inequality still exist in the courses students take – vocational courses are overpopulated by poorer kids – we have in our time witnessed the emergence of a belief that college is a possibility for everyone. Today, however, we are also witnessing the rise of a strong counter-voice, skeptical about the individual and societal value of channeling all young people into post-secondary education.
The skeptics are a diverse group. Many are economists who point to trends in the labor market that reveal a number of good and growing jobs that require some post-secondary occupational training but not a four-year – or even two-year – degree. Some are educators (including, but not limited to, Career and Technical Education interest groups) who emphasize the variability of students’ interests and aptitudes, not all of which find fulfillment in the college curriculum. And some are social commentators who blend the economic and educational argument with reflection on the value of direct contact with the physical world, something increasingly remote in our information age. Though these skeptics come from a range of ideological backgrounds, they share a concern that in pushing post-secondary education for everyone, we perpetuate a myth that personal fulfillment and economic security can be had only by pursuing a college degree.
This debate is an important one and is of interest to me because of my own history but more so because it directly affects the kinds of students I’ve been concerned with my entire professional life: Those who come from less-than-privileged backgrounds and aren’t on the fast track to college. It also catches my attention because a book of mine, The Mind at Work, is sometimes used in the argument against college-for-all.
The Mind at Work is the result of a study of the cognitive demands of physical work, waitressing and styling hair to carpentry and welding. Our society makes sharp and weighty distinctions – distinctions embodied in curricular tracking – between white collar and blue collar occupations, between brain work and hand work. But what I demonstrate is the degree to which physical work involves the development of a knowledge base, the application of concept and abstraction, problem solving and troubleshooting, aesthetic consideration and reflection. Hand and brain are cognitively connected.
From these findings I raise questions about our standard definitions of intelligence, the social class biases in those definitions, and their negative effects on education, the organization of work, and our nation’s political and social dynamics.
Those who use The Mind at Work to champion some type of occupational education over
a bachelor’s degree zero in on a core claim of the book: that physical work is cognitively rich, and it is class bias that blinds us from honoring that richness. But I go to some length to tease out the historical and social factors surrounding this core premise, particularly as it plays out in the division between the vocational and the academic course of study. I want to raise these issues again here, for they can get simplified in the debate between advocates of college-for-all and the skeptics. In fact, I worry that, as is the case with so many education debates, it will devolve into a binary polemic. The predictable result will be a stalemate or a partial and inadequate solution that will not address the web of concerns that underlies this debate or honor the lives of the young people at the heart of it.
Let me begin by acknowledging current labor-market realities, for many low-income sstudents are in immediate financial need. These students can commit to any form of post- secondary education only if it leads to a decent wage and benefits. Furthermore, the record of post-secondary success is not a good one. Many students leave college without a certificate or degree that can help them in the job market, and, in many cases, they incur significant debt. There are good jobs out there that require training but not a two- or four-year degree, jobs that are relatively secure in a fluid global economy. The plumber’s and the chef’s work cannot be outsourced.
It is also true – and anyone who teaches and, for that fact, any parent knows it – that some young people are just not drawn to the kinds of activities that comprise the typical
academic course of study, no matter how well executed. In a community college fashion program I’ve been studying, I see students with average to poor high school records deeply involved in their work, learning techniques and design principles, solving problems, building a knowledge base. Yet they resist, often with strong emotion, anything smacking of the traditional classroom, including the very structure of the classroom itself. This resistance holds even when the subject (textiles, history of fashion) relates to their interests.
The college-for-all vs. occupational training debate is typically focused on structural features of the K-12 curriculum and on economic outcomes with little attention paid to the intellectual and emotional lives of the young people involved: their interests, what has meaning for them, what they want to do with their lives. A beginning student in a welding program gave
succinct expression to all this: “I love welding. This is the first time school has meant anything to me.”
The problem is that historically the vocational curriculum itself has not adequately honored the rich intellectual content of work. As the authors of an overview of high school Voc Ed from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education put it: vocational education “emphasized job-specific skills to the almost complete exclusion of theoretical content.” And the general education courses – English, history, mathematics – that vocational students took were typically dumbed-down and unimaginative. Reforms over the past few decades have gone some way toward changing this state of affairs, but the overall results have been uneven.
The huge question then is this: Is a particular vocationally oriented program built on the cognitive content of work and does it provide a strong education in the literacy and mathematics, the history and economics, the science and ethics that can emerge from the world of work? Few of the economists I’ve read who advocate an expansion of Career and Technical Education address the educational (versus job training) aspects of their proposals.
I want to return to the skeptics' concern about the mixed record of student success in post- secondary education. Do we really want to urge more students into a system that on average graduates about 50-60% of those who enter it? But the skeptics' seems to fault students more than the colleges they attend and affords no other option but to redirect students who aren’t thriving into job-training programs.
We need to be careful about painting this broad group of students with a single brush stroke. Some are strongly motivated but because of poor education, family disruption, residential mobility, or a host of reasons are not academically prepared. The question is what kind of course work and services does the college have to help them. (And it should be noted that many vocational programs recommended by the skeptics would require the same level of academic remediation.) Some students are unsure about their future, are experimenting – and in my experience, it’s not easy to determine in advance who will find their way. We also know that a significant number of students leave college temporarily or permanently for non-academic reasons: finances, childcare, job loss. Some of these cases could be addressed with financial aid or other resources and social services. So while I take the skeptics’ point about the poor record of student success and agree that college is not for everyone and that a fulfilling life can be had without it, it is a simplistic solution to funnel everyone who is not thriving into a vocational program.
Such a solution also smacks of injustice. Right at the point in our society when college is being encouraged for a wide sweep of the population, we have the emergence of a restrictive counterforce that is seen by some as an attempt to protect privilege, or, at the least, as an ignorance of social history. Research by sociologists Jennie Brand and Yu Xie demonstrates that those least likely to attend college because of social class position – and thus, on average, have a less privileged education – are the ones who gain the most economically from a college degree. For such populations, going to college can also provide a measure of social and cultural capital. There is a long history of exclusion that has to be addressed before countering broad access to higher education.
All the above raises the basic question: What is the purpose of education? Both the college-for-all advocates and the skeptics justify their positions on economic grounds, but another element in the college-for-all argument is that in addition to enhancing economic mobility, going to college has important intellectual, cultural, and civic benefits as well. These different perspectives on the purpose of college play into – and are shaped by – a long standing tension in American higher education: a conflict between the goal of cultivating intellectual growth and liberal culture versus the goal of preparing students for occupation and practical life. I treat this issue more fully in other chapters in this book, but let me say here that I think this tension – like the divide between the academic and vocational – restricts the conversation we should be having. How can we enhance the liberal studies possibilities in a vocational curriculum and enliven and broaden the academic course of study through engagement with the world
beyond the classroom?
A third option between college or work has emerged in the last few years: Linked Learning, which is also known by its former name, Multiple Pathways. There are various incarnations of Linked Learning, but a common one is a relatively small school that is theme- based and offers a strong academic curriculum for all students; the students then have options to branch off toward a career, or an occupational certificate, or a two- or four-year degree.
It is important to remember here that goals, expectations, and what students imagine for themselves are deeply affected by information and experience. For a pathways approach to be effective, students will need a lot of information about college and careers and multiple opportunities to visit colleges and potential work sites: hospitals, courts, and laboratories. The
differences in cultural and social capital between my UCLA students and the students I know at inner-city community colleges are profound and widening as inequality widens in our country. Pathways advocates will have to confront this inequality head on, for it is as important as the construction of curriculum.
The college-for-all advocates would applaud the emphasis on a strong academic core but worry that this system could devolve into a new form of tracking. And the college-for-all skeptics, I suspect, would applaud the presence of a vocational pathway, though worry that anti- vocational biases would still stigmatize the option. These are legitimate concerns, and many advocates of the Linked Learning approach acknowledge them. The advocates also admit the significant challenges facing such a reform: from faculty development and curriculum design to the ancillary academic and social services needed to provide a quality pre-pathways education
for all students. Still, this is a promising alternative, and some schools are demonstrating success with it.
Though this college versus work debate can slip into a reductive either/or polemic, I think that it does raise to awareness a number of important issues, ones not only central to education
but also to the economy, to the meaning of work, and to democratic life. There is the sky- rocketing cost of college and the poor record of retention and graduation in higher education. There is the disconnect between the current labor market and the politically popular rhetoric of “educating our way into the new economy.” And there is the significant commitment of financial and human resources that will be needed to make college-for-all a reality.
On a broader scale there is the purpose of education in a free society. There is the issue of the variability of human interests and talents and the class-based bias toward entire categories of knowledge and activity – a bias institutionalized in the structure of the American high school. There is, then, the need to rethink the academic-vocational divide itself and its post-secondary cousin, the liberal ideal versus the vocational mission of the college. And finally we need to keep in mind that the college-for-all versus work debate takes place within a history of inequality and that the resolution of the debate will involve not only educational and economic issues but civic and moral ones as well.
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