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Thought Leadership

Don’t Say A College Education Isn’t For Everybody

March 3, 2022

Nancy Lee Sánchez

It might seem pretty innocuous to point out that college isn’t a good fit for everyone. It’s definitely something I heard growing up in the countryside of Puerto Rico and attending school in mostly first-generation classrooms in New York City. Many families I knew saw a college education as a financial, educational, and professional reach that might get in the way of immediate employment. College stood as a risky proposition that wasn’t fully understood unless you wanted to be a teacher, doctor, or lawyer.

In my own family, the difficulties of overcoming modest circumstances to get a college education, rather than any questions about my abilities, were probably at the root of whatever fears my mother may have had about my enrolling in higher education. College was more of a sure bet for rich people – and certainly not an essential path for girls.

However, once I began getting degrees myself, starting at community college and continuing with a master’s and doctorate, my mother’s support became emphatic. Like most first-generation households, each achievement was celebrated as proof that given the opportunity we could do anything. Like so many others who moved to the U.S. mainland, my family associated education with opportunity and upward mobility.

Yet today there’s been a revival of the pushback against the college degree. After all, critics say, two-thirds of Americans aren’t graduates of four-year colleges. Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about the need to hire based on skills instead of credentials. Worries about rising college costs lead to anxiety about whether the payoff is even worthwhile. There’s also a subtext, whether it’s stated directly or not: maybe not everyone is smart enough to benefit from a college education.

This kind of thinking concerns me for several reasons. For one thing, we know that not every violinist will be good enough to play at Carnegie Hall, but would we discourage large numbers of students from taking music lessons because of that? It would be even worse if the young people we steered away just happened to be students of color and from low-income families.

It’s no accident that education is strongly associated with freedom and advancement. Think of the notorious 18th and 19th century laws making it illegal to teach enslaved people to read and write. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, born into slavery, gives a moving account in his autobiography of how he learned those crucial skills.

What’s more, social expectations can change for the better over time.The high school movement of the early 20th century had a transformative impact on our core expectations of the skills all Americans needed to embrace opportunity. And strong growth in college enrollment in the past 50 years has been accompanied by a significant average wage premium for graduates.

Of course, none of this means there’s necessarily something wrong or oppressive about choosing not to pursue a bachelor’s degree. There’s much more we can do to promote high-quality education and training pathways of all kinds after high school. But I fear the policy and resource decisions that are likely to follow if we abandon the goal of college-readiness for all.

After all, we know that talent is distributed widely throughout the population – but opportunity is not.

If college readiness means developing strong preparation in writing, math, and analytical skills, that should be our goal for all students, whatever their future plans might be. Imagine lowering expectations as early as sixth grade because we just don’t expect students not on the college track to need core academic skills. That’s a recipe for thwarting dreams, not to mention a misreading of how much the skill demands of all kinds of jobs are changing.

“College isn’t for everybody” risks leading to premature decisions about who is worthy and capable of more. And who should be making those decisions, anyway? What some might call a hard-headed, realistic philosophy will in fact be bad for individuals and bad for the country.

By all means, let’s do much more to expand learning opportunities throughout people’s lifetimes. That could mean short-term training programs that allow people to refresh their skills over time. It could mean more effective community college programs, both practical and academic. It could mean improving the disappointing graduation rates of too many four-year institutions. For everybody, it has to mean careful attention to whether education programs are delivering strong return on investment to learners.

But let’s maximize those possibilities by starting from a strong baseline of college-preparedness for all. A focus on expanding people’s potential – not prematurely writing off opportunities – is the best mindset we can give young people to choose with enthusiasm their paths in life.

This article first appeared in Forbes

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