Should Everyone Go To College?: That Is Not An Important Question

Dear Smart People Trapped in the ‘College for All?’ Debate,

For the love of God, please stop. I am talking to you, smart people who have been blogging and writing articles trying to answer the question, “Should everyone go to college?” The thing is, you guys, this is not an important question so can you stop asking it now? Do you want to know what some better questions are? How about: “For college degrees to lead to jobs, don’t there have to be jobs available?” Or how about, “Only a small percentage of low-income young people go to college anyway because they don’t have the money.” Okay so that last one was a statement and not a question. Doesn’t matter. These are the issues that we should be focusing on.

Let’s review the “college for all?” debate so that I can properly express my frustration at the fact that the question “should everyone go to college?” has somehow become important when it is really about as important as asking what Kate Middleton eats for dinner (not very much, from the look of her).

Version One: Too Many People Are Going to College Nowadays

The first person I want to speak to on this subject is Richard Vedder, a professor who blogs at the Chronicle of Higher Education. He started things off with his article “The Great College-Degree Scam.” Professor, you argue that not everyone should go to college. Why? You explain that there are an increasing number of restaurant workers who have college diplomas hanging on their walls, a statistic that disturbs you greatly. “In 1992,” you explain, “119,000 waiters and waitresses were college degree holders. By 2008, this number had more than doubled to 318,000. . . . 20% of all new jobs in this occupation were filled by college graduates.” (Apparently, Vedder needed a “small army” of “Whiz Kid” researchers and access to secret files in the Bureau of Labor Statistics to uncover this fact, which is weird because all of the people who read his CHE blog are probably unemployed college graduates and PhD-holding restaurant workers reading about themselves between shifts.)

Prof. Vedder, your discovery that the people who bring you food at restaurants may have four-year degrees causes you to make the rather sweeping conclusion that too many students are enrolling in college these days. “[T]he push to increase the number of college graduates seems horribly misguided from a strict economic/vocational perspective,” you write. (Presumably, Vedder means that waitress-types should not enroll in the august institutions he reveres.) At the same time, you lament the “horrible decline in productivity in American education.” In other words, you wants us to blame schools themselves for the fact that college-educated workers can’t find college-level work. Vedder, that makes no sense at all.

What is Prof. Vedder’s solution? He suggests that employers stop using educational credentials as a “screening device” when the jobs they are looking to fill don’t really require a diploma. (Got that? Employers need to hire more non-college educated people in order to help the college educated find jobs.) Furthermore, Vedder recommends that more young people enter the workforce instead of enrolling in college because there are so many positions available for 19-year olds with only high school diplomas. They can all probably find jobs serving food in restaurants. What? Exactly.

What Vedder does not realize is that there is an ongoing “college-degree scam,” only it doesn’t work that way he thinks it works. And he’s not the only one who is right about the scam but wrong about the solution.

“Professor X,” an adjunct who has written about the low-wage dystopian hellscape that is part-time college writing instruction, argues that too many people are going to college these days too. But his rationale is slightly different than Vedder’s. Prof. X thinks many young people are just not prepared for the rigors of academia. “Remarkably few of my students can do well,” he says of the many poorly prepared pupils he has taught at non-elite colleges. “Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.”

First of all, Prof. X, it is my fervent belief that coherent sentences are vastly overrated as both a unit of meaning and as an explanatory device for complex sociological questions such as why do some people succeed in college while many others do not? I know that you are ragging on your students for rhetorical effect, and I certainly understand your justifiable frustration at the fact that many students have been talked into enrolling in classes that they can ill-afford and that will not benefit them. I would still like to ask you a question: “Is a lack of ability to write so-called coherent sentences really the biggest problem that these students face?” In other words, Prof. X, I wish you had been a little less negative towards your students. In fact, the lack of ability to write a coherent sentence has no more to do with college failure than the ability to write one guarantees academic or professional success. (Just ask all the unemployed PhDs out there.)

I have been an adjunct writing instructor myself, so I am sympathetic to Prof X’s plight. We have all raged (privately) against students we know will never pass our classes, which leads me to a second question: “Why do these kids enroll in college, if they are so unprepared? After all, failure can’t be any more fun for students than it is for their perturbed adjunct professor?” I think the answer is that students want to learn, and they also want a better life. They want to find a good job, which might lead to a fascinating career they love. And they want to be able to support their own families one day. You know, American Dream-type stuff. Will attending Prof X’s class and learning how to write coherent sentences help students achieve this?

Version Two: The Liberal Arts and Humanities Are Useless Nowadays

This leads to another tangent of the “college for all?” debate. According to this view, everyone should go to college, as long as they don’t major in the Liberal Arts because the Liberal Arts are the bombed-out relic of a bygone era, the graveyard of the artistically inclined who naively thought a vast knowledge of Shakespeare and modern art would make them vital to our national economy. This is the view presented by Kim Brooks in a Salon article in which she tells the sad tale of how her prospects after earning a Humanities degree didn’t live up to her expectations. She couldn’t find a job and had to bounce around from short-term gig to short-term gig. Not being a member of the literati was all very stressful, which Brooks wrote all about in Salon. What? Exactly.

Who or what does Brooks blame for the fact that she didn’t become the upwardly-mobile professional she aspired to be? It’s the Liberal Arts’ fault, of course! Or is it the fault of “college” in general? Brooks isn’t sure. “I’m not asking if a college education has inherent value,” she writes. “What I’m asking is: Why do even the best colleges fail so often at preparing kids for the world?” I completely relate to Ms. Brooks’ employment plight. However, I have to say that her first question, the one she couldn’t quite bring herself to ask, is actually the right one. “Does a college degree have an inherent value?”

The answer, Ms. Brooks, is no. Degrees have ascribed value because they are a form of capital, which simply means college degrees enable the bearer to trade them for other stuff, such as money, social status, self-gratification, or what have you. I’m not just making this up! I am reporting what many brilliant thinkers such as Pierre Bourdieu and Annette Lareau have said about how the value of credentials are determined and then traded on.

Let me be clear: no one is saying people are wrong to feel that intellectual pursuits benefitted their lives, made them better people, or whatever. But this is not the same thing as inherent value. If a degree had an inherent value, its worth wouldn’t fluctuate with the times, with the vicissitudes of the market, or with whatever disciplinary field happens to be en vogue. And Kim Brooks wouldn’t have to wonder whether her degree mattered or whether it was “worth” the effort.

What does it mean for a degree to matter? If there are more degrees, do they matter less or more? This brings us to another version of the “don’t major in the Liberal Arts!” argument that I want to include here because it illustrates the faulty logic that undergirds the entire “college for all?” debate. We might call this the “liberal arts are okay as long as they’re combined with vocational training” version. In a recent piece in The Nation, called “Should All Kids Go to College?” (there’s that pesky question again), Dana Goldstein explains that some vocational colleges are implementing what she describes as “a more intellectual version of ‘career and technical education,’ or CTE, one that infuses traditional vocational training with the academic rigor and ethic of college prep.” Goldstein highlights two schools that are combining vocational training with courses that encourage the habits of mind more often associated with the Liberal Arts (like figuring out the principles behind how a combustion engine works, for example.) The problem is, Goldstein informs us, these programs are super-expensive, and no one wants to pay for them.

Ok, Ms. Goldstein, I think I get what you are saying here, and I agree that the Liberal Arts should be a part of all courses of study. My concern is twofold. First, I am distressed by the broad vision of economic change and personal responsibility that a CTE curriculum perpetuates. We cannot capitulate to the wrong-headed view that unemployment can be effectively addressed by educational programs. This makes macroeconomics a problem of individuals with the wrong skills, and it suggests that we can teach and learn our way to a better economy or to a more equitable world. This is just not the case, and many economists reject the view that our unemployment problem is “structural,” that is, that there is a mismatch between positions available and the skills workers bring to the table. As the NYT recently reported, there were only 18,000 jobs added to the economy in June, not even enough to keep up with new workers entering the labor force. For the long-term unemployed, the picture is very bleak. If there are no jobs to get, all the “career and technical education” in the world won’t help.

Secondly, Ms. Goldstein, I think we need to be careful not to confirm the view that so-called vocational work is not already an intellectual enterprise that has the potential to deeply engage students in complex reading, writing, thinking, and doing. I know you are familiar with the work of Mike Rose who has argued for many years that vocational work requires complex mental and physical skills. On his blog, Rose explains that “the [academic/vocational] divide also has a negative effect on those advocating a college-for-all approach, for it can blind them to the significant intellectual content of occupations and the many ways that occupational study, as John Dewey saw, can give rise to the study of the arts and sciences.” Let me repeat: occupations and occupational study already have intellectual content.

In other words, professionals, academics, and other white collar “information economy” workers like to think they are the only ones using their brains while working-class folks are busy with mindless tasks. (I’m not saying Goldstein is arguing this, but I think it’s a common misconception.) The truth is that the habits of thinking associated with the Liberal Arts are already part of many occupations. Moreover, perpetuating a false divide between vocational and academic work too often justifies low wages for workers who supposedly aren’t performing intellectually-oriented jobs. Why pay waitresses a living wage? They just take orders and bring food to people, after all! (Mike Rose’s book The Mind at Work also includes a fascinating discussion about his mother, a waitress, who performed a great deal of intellectual work on the job.) Recognizing that all labor requires significant cognitive and emotional skills can become the basis for paying workers a living wage, which is the point.

Version Three: Everyone Should Go to College All the Time Because College is Always Good No Matter What

There is still another version of the “college for all” debate wherein people argue that everyone should go to a place called “college” because it will help them earn more money and make them happier. These folks mean well, but they do not understand the role that social class plays in educational outcomes. An example of this view can be found in David Leonhardt’s New York Times article, “Even for Cashiers, College Pays Off.” (That has got to be the most snobbish title in all of NYT history, a major feat!)

Leonhardt writes that “[t]he evidence is overwhelming that college is a better investment for most graduates than in the past. A new study even shows that a bachelor’s degree pays off for jobs that don’t require one: secretaries, plumbers and cashiers.” My concern about Leonhardt’s argument (which can be summed up with the statistic that plumbers with college degrees make more money than plumbers without degrees) is that Leonhardt falls into the same trap as those who question the value of college for all. He talks about “college” as if it’s a monolith that provides the same experience and the same gains for all students, when folks who study higher education know that low-status colleges and campuses with non-selective admissions policies simply do not provide the same benefits as the high-end campuses Leonhardt seems to have in mind. (Check out Gary Berg’s book, for one example. Or read John Schmitt’s takedown of Leonhardt’s colleague, Catherine Rampell, who also claimed that college is “worth it” for, well, everyone.)

What I want to say to Leonhardt is: What about community colleges where students take classes at night after getting off work at the 7-11, and where only 10% of those who enroll ever graduate? What about the private schools that charge high tuition and then “teach” young people how to make minimum wage answering the phone at a doctor’s office? What about non-selective colleges with low graduation rates that leave students with tremendous debt burdens? These colleges simply do not offer the same return on investment as institutions that serve more traditional students. (By the way, the term “traditional students” should not be taken to mean “most students.” Only a small percentage of college students are full-time students who live on campus and do not have to work while in school.)

Leonhardt, the question is not “Do plumbers with college degrees make more money than plumbers without them?” The question is, “Does a plumber with a degree from Yale make more money than a plumber with a degree from No-Name College in No-Place-in-Particular?” Putting the question of institutional status at the center of the debate illustrates how ridiculous it is to talk about “college” without clarifying which colleges we’re talking about. Elite colleges do not produce a lot of plumbers; they produce bankers, lawyers, doctors, Supreme Court justices, Presidents, and etc. And very few of those graduates came from families of plumbers. So asking how much plumber-graduates make is an unhelpful question wrapped inside of a debate that skirts the real question most plumbers, cashiers, and other working people face: where can they find good jobs at fair wages that provide health insurance and a reasonable pension so they don’t have to work until they drop dead from old age?

Before we come to the end of this opus, I must discuss Peter Sacks, a researcher who understands the impact of social class on academic achievement very well. His Tearing Down the Gates is a fantastic and troubling account of the economic barriers low-income and working-class students face on the road to college degrees. Unfortunately, my deep love for Sacks contributes to my sadness that he too falls into the trap of “college for all?” by framing the debate as an argument between people who think more people should go to college and earn degrees and people (“anti-expansionists”) who believe fewer students should attend college. Sacks writes, “One might wonder if those who advocate more restricted educational opportunity, available only to young people deemed to be ‘college material,’ would in fact have profoundly different views regarding their own children.” I totally get the fact that Sacks is trying to counter the arguments of elitists like Vedder. And he is correct that many people who argue against college for all would no doubt insist that their own children earn degrees.

The problem is with how Sacks defends the college-going dreams of low-income students. “Let [the ‘anti-expansionists’] tell the young woman who graduates from an East Los Angeles high school and finds a spot in the California State University system that her college degree was a waste of resources,” Sacks writes. “Tell her that, when she has found her first real job doing what her degree trained her to do. Tell her this, after she discovers for the first time in her life, that she too is part of the American Dream.” Sacks’ indignation is appropriate (even if his rhetoric is a bit overblown), as is his general point that the dreams of a non-elite student are just as important as anyone else’s.

With respect to Sacks, though, whether the “young woman from East Los Angeles” gets to go to college and become part of the “American Dream” is not the issue because college attendance does not currently provide access to the “American Dream,” whatever that is. The real question is whether that young woman will be able to find a job and earn a living wage with her degree, or whether her job will provide her with health insurance, meaningful opportunities for advancement, cost-of-living increases, and other trappings of dignified employment. Furthermore, it matters very much whether this young woman had to borrow so much money to earn her diploma that her wage premium is depressed for the rest of her life, which is often the case for low-income students. The real “college-degree scam,” then, is that colleges currently perpetuate inequality, as Sacks himself explains in Tearing Down the Gates: “We want our schools, colleges, and universities to be the Great Equalizers that help to erase social and economic inequality,” he writes. “We prefer to ignore the reality that our schools and colleges in fact reproduce, reinforce, and legitimize inequality.” Sacks knows that the “college for all?” debate is a distraction from the real issues, I’d say.

Before I go, I would like to make two final points:

First reason the “should everyone go to college?” question is not an important question so everyone can stop asking it now.

Because it already has an obvious answer! Millions of people cannot afford to go to college, so it makes no sense to ask whether they should or shouldn’t. They can’t go, which is the point. Here is what education scholar, Jean Anyon, says about it in Marx and Education: “A 2009 study of college completion found that 91% of low-income students who enter a four-year college do not finish, with most citing lack of money as the reason.” So can we STOP arguing whether or not “everyone” should go to college? I repeat: this is an unhelpful question when 91% of low-income students are prevented from completing college because of financial concerns, not because they are not smart or cannot (I know I am beating up on poor Prof. X) write coherent sentences.

Second reason the “should everyone go to college?” question is not an important question so everyone can stop asking it now.

Let me say firmly that everyone should have access to a high-quality, affordable education. All students should be able to learn in ways that engage their minds and help them develop the intellectual capacity that is inherent in every human being. Whether or not students are “college material” is not the issue, nor is the question “should students major in Engineering instead of English?” Better questions include: are there jobs available for people with and without diplomas, and do those jobs pay a living wage? If we are really dedicated to discussing curricula and pedagogy, we might consider asking: What kind of educational initiatives can help bring a more equitable society into existence? Come on, you guys! We cannot concede the terms of the debate to those who argue that education creates its own opportunities or that addressing unemployment requires little more than a newfangled curriculum.

What is the point, Larson?

The point is not, as Vedder wants us to think, that too many people are going to college. The point is not, as Prof. X wants us to think, that some students are just not “college material.” The point is not, as Dana Goldstein suggests, that college curricula need to be more aligned with mythical “jobs of the future.” And the point is not, as Leonhardt writes, that plumbers with college degrees make more money than non-college-educated plumbers. Finally, the point is not only, as Peter Sacks implies, that low-income students should have the opportunity to attend college.

The “college for all?” debate is simply the wrong debate no matter how you slice it. As long as we’re stuck in the perverse logic that says “workers have to go to college before they can afford to have a roof over their heads, feed their kids, and get medical care,” we’ve moved into the realm of the ridiculous, where the cause of our economic problems is the decreasing value of degrees and the solution to our problems is more degrees, a viciously circular reasoning that only makes sense if you blame unemployed people for their lack of a job and low-wage workers for their inability to earn a living.

Students, from kindergarten to college, hear the message their entire lives that a “good education” is the foundation for a reasonably secure financial future and a productive life. Rather than fault students for believing what their elders tell them and signing up for classes that may not benefit them, why not fault a society that perpetuates the destructive myth that the difference between a living wage and a life that skirts the poverty line is sitting in Prof X’s Composition class and learning how to write coherent sentences?

Now there’s a debate I’d like to hear.

In my next post, I will highlight some people who are asking the right questions and doing some indispensable work on education issues. For one thing, I have been writing a lot about people who make me mad when, in fact, there are many writers, researchers, and teachers whose work I admire to the point where I would like to marry them. All of them. Short of that, I would like to give them a ticker-tape parade down Fifth Avenue. (I’m talking to you, Schools Matter guy!)

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