Preparing Kids for College (A Prologue): Kids should go to college.

If you’ll permit me this space, I need to work out some things. I’ve been struggling a bit with the whole college readiness question, in particular the simple question: what’s the best way to prepare kids for college level work? But before I dig into that in later parts, I need to publicly own my world view on a couple things. I hold two assumptions that are probably worth contesting, and will certainly color the remainder of my college-readiness manifesto. Here goes:

The lack of a college degree is debilitating to a person’s work and career potential.

The lack of work and career potential is debilitating to a person’s enjoyment of his or her life.

So, what do you guys think? Hate me yet? The “you don’t have to go to college to be successful!” drumbeat is louder than ever these days, often from educators I respect and admire. But my admiration is tempered by the fact that I think this is a hugely damaging assumption. Kids should get as much education as they can. Formal education, with pieces of paper awaiting at the end at that.

Before I continue further, I’d like to talk about my father-in-law a bit.

My father-in-law worked for decades in the print business. Working probably 60 hours a week as a warehouse manager, he was and is a diligent and supremely competent worker. He’s also now chronically unemployed. As the print business he worked for shuttered its doors – because it’s the printing business – he began to search for similar work. He started his search locally, but eventually had to expand it to an hour-plus commute time. After several more months he had to expand his search to the entire country. Eventually, he found a position in Ohio that would take him, thousands of miles away. Why wouldn’t nearby businesses accept his application? Because he doesn’t have a piece of paper showing that he has a bachelor’s degree. That’s it. As you know, this economy’s kind of in the crapper right now and personally I have no reason to believe it’ll get substantially better any time in the near future. That’s a post for another day.

My father-in-law was applying for living-wage jobs along with 50, 100, or 200 other applicants. But he never finished college. If you’re a business hiring for one position with dozens or hundreds of applicants, a college degree becomes the first filter to help whittle down that stack of paper. It’s not the way it should be, but it’s the way it is. The way things should be would include having all the applicants demonstrate their skills in some capacity – a trial employment or something like that. Had that been the case, my father-in-law would assuredly be able to pick whatever warehouse/printing/data management job he wanted.

If you think a college degree isn’t a necessity in this day and age, I’d like you to talk to a chronically unemployed person. Or better yet, be there when he or she gets a rejection notice (although, truth be told, most businesses didn’t even bother sending a rejection notice). Tell them that having a college degree isn’t important when they’re sending out 20 applications in a week and hope to hear from just one. Tell them that they were right to not go to college when they give in and take a minimum wage job, after having worked for decades earning a comfortable annual salary.

Yes, there are unemployed PhDs out there, but unemployment rates decrease steadily the more education you have. Even (especially) in this crappy economy.

Yes, there are successful people that didn’t go to college.  “Steve Jobs didn’t graduate college!” But if anything, those examples actually present more of an argument FOR going to college:  if you want to be successful without a college degree, you’d better be as innovative as Steve Jobs, as tech-savvy (it’s always tech businesses) as Michael Dell. (Aside, I find it hilarious that this yahoo! article on CEO’s without college degrees includes Maverick Carter, who’s only qualification in life is “being LeBron James’s friend”). And please don’t tell me “I know a guy that fixes air conditioners that makes 60K a year and he never graduated college!” Unless you have a data set better than the above link from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, I will not accept your anecdotal data of people who are succeeding in their careers without high education.

Yes, we want our students to be happy, and have a career they love, not just a job where they clock in. But the relationship between life satisfaction and employment (or, perhaps, the inverse) is undeniable. Happiness and employment are inextricably linked. Likewise unhappiness and unemployment are basically a proxy for one another.

So, I basically reject these counter-arguments as, at-best, hooey, and at-worst, ignorant and destructive. However, I think there is merit to the following counter-argument: we do such a poor job of retaining and graduating students once they get to college. This is the fly in the pro-college ointment that I’m selling. The only thing worse than bypassing college entirely is going, then dropping out with student loan debt. Or going to one of those horrific, for-profit trade schools. I would submit though that once a kid has been accepted to a university, the onus of graduation then rests upon the university, not the student’s K-12 schools and teachers. Again, another post/another day, but if a university accepts a student based on their application, it is up to the university to graduate as many of those accepted students as possible. Moreover, the inspiration of this multi-part college readiness manifesto is to address just that: how to get kids college-ready. How do we ensure kids get the content knowledge as well as learn how to deal with the social and financial pressures associated with living on your own for the first time? What would a high school geared specifically toward college readiness look like? I’m not sure I’ll be able to come up with any concrete answers, but I’ll at least try to generate a few questions.

Would taking English Composition 101 or Calculus 3 have helped my father-in-law in decades in the print business? Of course not. But having a college degree in the here and now would help him get a job that actually pays the mortgage and live near his grandchildren. As I said, this isn’t about the way things should be, it’s about the way things are.

We are doing a disservice to kids if we tell them there are ample, well-paying job opportunities for workers without a college degree. Because that is a flat out lie.

So I hope you’ll allow me some self-struggling for a couple weeks through this question of college readiness: why, what, and how?

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5 Responses to Preparing Kids for College (A Prologue): Kids should go to college.

  1. Although i heartily agree with your sentiment, I think saying “college degree” is a bit narrow. I would change that to “technical certificate or college degree”. Going to an accredited tech school can be just as worthwhile in helping kids to be employable. I would disagree that a Bachelor’s degree is the only option.

  2. emergentmath says:

    Thanks for your comment Maria. As for tech schools, I agree they can be useful in keeping kids employed, but they can also be ponzi schemes. Nursing, culinary, art (etc.) academies are crocks and no better prepare students for the workforce they portend to prepare kids for. Those nursing academies prepare you to be a Certified Nursing Assistant, and no more. One has to go to an actual nursing school to become a nurse. Better a community college that offers certificates, along with coursework that could one day transfer to a university.

    • Yes, faux tech schools are dangerous decoys. You’re absolutely right on there. Yet, I maintain that accredited tech schools, academies, institutes, etc., do a good job of preparing kids for the work force. Most offer job placement after graduation and they all have some form of internship required to complete their training. We have many highly regarded tech institutes in New England. CNAs are actually in demand right now. that could be a first step or an end unto itself in the healthcare field, depending on the student. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. BUT, having given my two cents, let me say that I love your blog and gain so much from your perspective on teaching math and handling the many aspects it presents. Suffice it to say that I’m an ‘old dog’ who’s trying to learn new tricks. Teaching is a new career for me after many years in publishing. So, thanks for allowing me a peek into your life and habits of mind.

  3. Nils Davis says:

    No question that a college degree confers employability and if you don’t have one, you’re screwed in our current economy/society. Your two points are right on, given that. My reading, however, and I’m sure you were intending this, is that you aren’t making any kind of claim in this article that college has intrinsic benefits. I would actually make a stronger argument, that it *does* have intrinsic benefits, but they aren’t terribly related to the classes you take, except for the handful that happen to shift your worldview (for me these were Intro to Linguistics, which introduced me to Edward Hall’s books about anthropology, and Philosophy of Science, which introduced me to paradigm shifts), or that directly prepare you for your career – which is rare. The social aspects, the growing up aspects, the fun, the friends – all those are great and worthwhile and college is the only place to get them, especially if you want to get a job after.

  4. emergentmath says:

    Thanks for the comment(s), Nils. I thing you’re right on: that there *is* intrinsic value in “the college experience”. It’s certainly hard to quantify. But I know personally that was the primary benefit of higher education. And aside from the base employability argument, you might actually find out what you’re good at. I did not start out as a math major, nor an education major. It’s really the last time in your life that many of us broaden their horizons to the degree that a university education can do.

    That’s a great point that certainly gets short shrift, Again, hard to quantify – not all learning must be quantified – but crucial. I told my students to go ahead and take out student loans (as I did), indebt yourself, because it’s the most person-developing time of many people’s lives.


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