Thursday, July 7, 2011

"College for All" Dissected (part 1)

In Dr. Seuss's parable of social class exclusion, The Sneeches on the Beaches, a distant, furry relative of mine, Sylvester McMonkey McBean (they changed it at Ellis Island), arrives in town with a machine that magically affixes a high status indicator (a star on the belly) to low status sneeches. The long-term benefits of the procedure are questionable.
This is a continuation of a post I put up last week, on the “college for all” movement.

Because this is such a delicate issue, and because there are so many angles from which it must be examined before it can be fully understood, I want to come out and state my overall position here and now: ideally, every student not suffering from severe biological handicaps should receive the kind of rigorous academic training that would provide an avenue to college; but, even in ideal circumstances, not all students should actually attend college; moreover, the rigid, uniform format in which college prep is currently being implemented in many inner-city schools is absurd and counterproductive.

Distant Goals

The school described in my last post probably offers an extreme example of the disconnect between reality and student expectations that can be created by a hardline commitment to college for all. The narrow and insistent focus on college as the sole aim of grade-school education, however, inevitably creates a peculiar circumstance, in which all students are striving for a goal that, barring unprecedented pedagogical breakthroughs, many of them will not attain. High though our ideals may be, the realities of our schools and neighborhoods are not yet commensurate. To overcome the impact of poverty and segregation through sheer quality of schooling is a herculean undertaking, and we are naive if we expect it to be instantly accomplished, simply because we have willed it so.

In a paper for the 2002 Spencer Foundation Conference, economist Richard Rothstein wrote about the pervasiveness of unrealistic college expectations:

…as late as their senior year in high school, black adolescents expect to graduate from college and obtain graduate degrees at higher rates than whites. Many then drop out of college and may take less rewarding jobs than those for which nonacademic training programs could have prepared them. [1]

The No-Excuses movement is not as un-self-critical as its advocates in politics and the media make it appear, however. Among teachers and administrators in these schools, it is widely acknowledged that there is a significant gap between where most students are now and where they need to be to succeed in college, especially in terms of critical thinking and problem solving skills. Worried about irresponsible portrayals in the blogosphere and beyond, schools tend to stay off the record about these concerns, but they are a topic of widespread internal discussion. (Charter school leaders whom I spoke to about this post and who were sympathetic to some of my argument were reluctant to be quoted for fear of how critics might misrepresent their positions. As the public relations officer of one large charter network once told me, “We’re here to run schools, not to do public relations.”)

Many No-Excuses schools and networks are beginning to experiment with more progressive, hands-on, comprehension-oriented instructional techniques, and many more are seeking to significantly expand instruction outside the core areas of math and English, providing improved education in the arts, science, social studies, debate, etc. As instructional styles become more varied and student comprehension deepens, college attendance will hopefully become a more reasonable goal for many students—but the problems with the “college for all” movement, in its current incarnation, go deeper than mere feasibility.

High Expectations

It’s important to understand the history of this movement. The “college for all” rhetoric is a reaction against what reformist critics of the 1990s (E. D. Hirsch is the obvious example) viewed as the softness and low expectations (and unconscious racism) of the Romantic-progressive attitudes that dominated public schooling in the mid-20th century, when vocational tracks served as dumping grounds for low-income and non-white students. (See Dana Goldstein’s article for The Nation for more detail on this.) Indeed, the moniker “No Excuses” is part of the same reaction: neither poverty nor broken homes nor drug-addicted parents nor anything else will be an excuse for academic failure. We must have high expectations for all students.

Indeed we must, but we should think carefully about what exactly those expectations are. “High expectations” is not a single idea; it’s a broad principle that can mean different things in different contexts. When we boil it down to the simple, concrete goal of universal college attendance, we lose more than we retain. As always, in the field of education, the attempt to expand and replicate a good idea has produced a codification that retains the veneer of the organic original, but little of its genius.

As some of the commenters on my last post pointed out, the question that’s really at stake here is, what are the purposes of schooling? High expectations will have a very different meaning depending on how we see those purposes: are they economic, social, intellectual, moral, democratic? College provides such a convenient token for high expectations, because it appears to serve all of these aims simultaneously. That very convenience should give us pause.

The Star-Belly Sneech Machine

For many educators and pundits, “college for all” is about socioeconomic equality. After nearly half a century of widening income inequality, America is now among the most stratified nations in the industrialized world. In these circumstances, “college for all” offers a reincarnation of the American Dream: if everyone goes to college, then everyone will become middle-class.

This doesn’t really make sense. If every kid in America attends college, there will still be only so many middle-class jobs; low-paying service jobs will still need to get done, and those who cannot obtain higher-paying jobs will still fill them, whether they go to college—and accumulate mountains of student debt—or not. In the same paper sited above, Rothstein provides vivid statistical data on the disconnect between college expectations and available jobs: “Some 90 percent of high school seniors now [in 2002] say they will go to college. Some 35 percent want to be engineers, architects, health professionals, and social or natural scientists. But only 8 percent of openings will be in those fields.”[2]

College attendance is a class-indicator precisely because it is exclusive. Universalize college, and it will cease to indicate or determine class. The result can already be seen in the increasingly stratified system of higher education, in which a degree from some schools is worth vastly more than a degree from others.

The Crooked Playing Field

Socioeconomic equality depends on economic factors, not on public schools. What school is supposed to offer is not equality but meritocracy—not equal outcomes, but equal opportunity. We find ourselves in the current quagmire, precisely because our public schools have failed to do that: poor students in segregated neighborhoods arrive at kindergarten behind their middle-class counterparts, and the vast majority of them fall further and further behind, year after year.

“College for all” represents an attempt to create an even playing field at age twenty-two; but that appears necessary only because we have failed to produce one at ages three through seventeen. Thus, the push for universal college attendance risks passing the dilemma of educating low-achieving students off onto community colleges and public universities that are no better equipped, financially or pedagogically, to overcome the academic deficits that these students arrive with. The result is overcrowding in bottom-tier colleges and high enrollment in remedial courses, which do not count towards a degree but do cost tuition dollars. If we have failed to teach a child to read by the time he reaches twelfth grade, sending him off to college probably will not help.

Facing up to that reality does not mean accepting it. The struggle for equity of quality and opportunity in education must continue, but real students should not be sacrificed to lofty ideals. Clifford Thomas, founder of Invictus Prep, a No-Excuses charter scheduled to open next fall, in East New York, Brooklyn, is deeply committed to “college for all,” but he retains a firm grasp on reality. “College for all is certainly the goal,” he says, “but we all know that we have to support the few students that won't be able to find that success, no matter how hard we educators try to get them there.”[3]

[1] ^ Richard Rothstein, Out of balance: Our understanding of how schools affect society and how society affects schools (Chicago: Spencer Foundation, 2002). Thanks to Jessica Wallenstein for bringing this paper to my attention.

[2] ^ Ibid.

[3] ^ From an online conversation between Mr. Thomas and Dewey to Delpit, June 28th, 2011. The statement was on the record.


  1. Hah! Within about five minutes of my putting the finishing touches on this post, I received an email from Students First, Michelle Rhee's education advocacy organization. The subject line: "The American dream for all students." The email makes explicit the connection between college and the American Dream.

  2. I agree that many middle class jobs in many industries don't require a four-year degree, but are they jobs in demand?

    In the United States, we don't have enough scientists, engineers, and other high skill roles that keep us a globally competitive nation.

    We don't train and educate enough of the populations who have been historically marginalized in under-represented fields such as women and minorities.

    Every high school student doesn't need to go to college, but they should be prepared to and be ACCEPTED into a college. It's up to them if they go or not, but at least the school they attended did there job and not keep them stuck 20-30 years later in the same economic class from there freshman year in high school.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Kai L.

    As I said at the beginning of this post, I do believe that every student should be provided an avenue to college—though, as Dana Goldstein discusses in her article for The Nation, and as I'll discuss next week in my follow-up to this post, that might happen through an academically rigorous vocational program.

    According to the projections made by the Harvard Graduate School of Education study that Dana cites, less than a third of new jobs in the American economy over the next seven years will require a four-year college degree, while about 47% will require some other sort of post-secondary training. Many of these, while not as upwardly mobile as, say, law or medicine, will provide avenues to middle-class life-styles and comfortable careers.

    We must not become complacent. We must constantly work to improve the educational outcomes and expand the career options for low-income and minority children. But while that project is still unfinished, we must also take stock of the realities of the job market and do what’s best for students living in an imperfect world.

  4. Within my lifetime, the goal for low-income youth morphed from "do better than your parents" to "graduate from a 4-year college." We abandoned an achievable goal that respects individual differences, to pursue an unrealistic and even unneccessary goal that arrogantly assumes that youth who do not attain a 4-year degree are losers. We did this in the name of equity, but it's hard to see young minority students being treated as cannon fodder in an idealogical war.

  5. Great article. I'd like to add a few thoughts:

    You hint at this in your post...but "high expectations" has come to have such a narrow meaning as to be a joke. If having "high expectations" means we all strive to become doctors, lawyers, and architects, we'll have a nation of doctors, lawyers, and architects desperately looking for work at pennies a day - while the few remaining farmers, electricians, and car mechanics take home millions of dollars a year for their precious services.

    "High expectations" should not imply a particular degree or career, but instead a happy, fulfilling, meaningful life as an engaged citizen. For many students of all classes and income levels, that does not mean a quest for the holy Phd! It means a balanced education that provides students with opportunities to pursue their individual passions and skills, and to respond to the economic signals of the job market.

    Let's stop lying to kids. Let's start telling them the honest truth about their options, and PROVIDING them with technical and vocational schooling options so that they and their families can make their own choices.

  6. Hi Andy,

    Thanks for your comments. Glad you enjoyed the post. I agree with everything you're saying here (see my latest post for more on the reductive standardization of "High Expectations") but there's one point I want to push on here: the approach you suggest to high expectations is certainly a healthier one than the “college for all” interpretation, but it turns high expectations into an economic concept, whereas I think it’s most powerful as a pedagogical one.

    As I discuss briefly in my latest post, high expectations are a central element of good pedagogy, and in that capacity they are much less about adult outcomes and much more about how students comport themselves and approach their work on a day-to-day and a minute-to-minute basis. It’s important, I think, to keep an eye on the nuanced, powerful impact that high expectations have on a classroom, when properly applied by a good teacher. See, for example, this anecdote from the precalc class that I taught this past Spring—not that I’m always a good teacher, but occasionally I am.