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Caring About College Too Much?

My brother had some learning difficulties growing up that made reading difficult. He struggled his way through a mishmash of learning-disability labels, and in high school was starting to find his footing. He was not an advanced-placement, straight-A student, but neither was he flunking. Around his junior year, my mother was having a conversation with some other parents in which she said that she didn’t know if he would be going to college or not.

The other parents were aghast, and basically implied that by not pressuring him into higher education she would be committing the equivalent of child abuse. My mother was equally aghast. She was not telling him he couldn’t go, or even implying that he might not want to or that it might be too hard for him. But, she said, “I’d rather he was a happy plumber than a miserable college graduate.” Ah, sweet reason.

This was in a well-off New Jersey suburb. But the attitude she faced is not to be found only there. A focus on getting a college education is one of the most common prescriptions from all sides for helping the poor escape the cycle of poverty and for helping to end years of racial inequities.

It is very true that there a lot of people who would excel in higher education who should be given more of a chance—knee-jerk assumptions based on race, class, neighborhood, and learning style/speed about who will and won’t succeed at what are still all too prevalent, and need to be eradicated. (Case in point: No thanks to the elementary-school teachers who treated him like he was dim-witted, my brother did choose to go to college, finished a BA in five years, and is now nearly finished with a professional certificate in Geographic Information Systems.)

But designating one road to success involves designating other life paths as less than ideal, as not successful. Which is foolish, and elitist. And plain not true. The almost-too-obvious-to-say problems with prescribing a one-size-fits-all educational direction for success are (1) people are good at different things and (2) we need people to do things besides sit at desks or be doctors and lawyers, and to work with things other than words and money. We need plumbers, laborers, bus drivers, etc.

And yet, the measure of success for k-12 education has become entirely about preparing kids for college. Witness the bizarre criteria used by Newsweek’s recent ranking of the top 1,000 public high schools: number of Advanced Placement exams taken, divided by the number of graduating seniors. The rationale that the researchers use for this number is not all bad: It measures, they say, the percent of students given access to rigorous, college-like academic work. It favors schools who give wide access to these classes, and doesn’t measure scores because research has shown that having a taste of the challenging material is a better predictor of success at college than doing well on the exams.

All well and good. That’s a far better measure than something like average score on the SAT. But it also divides against graduating seniors, meaning a school with a wildly high dropout rate that manages to graduate only students who were attracted to honors classes and ignores the rest could in theory look peachy keen.

And, more to the point, it assumes that the “best” schools are the ones that best enable the most students to go an academically rigorous college. Period. End of story. Why? They need to get jobs, of course.

Bill Coplin of the Maxwell School of Syracuse University has a few words to say on that subject. In the description of the talk he gave at the Workforce New York conference here in Albany last week, he writes: “With the overemphasis on college preparation in our schools, youth think that their success will be assured if they get a high GPA. This gives a false sense of confidence to the high academic achievers and sends a negative signal to all those students with a B average or below. Employers want skills and character which, according to surveys, are not guaranteed by a college degree or high GPA.” In an op-ed in USA Today last year, he put it even more bluntly: “Accumulating knowledge doesn’t promote a successful career any more than overdosing on vitamins leads to good health.”

Oh right. If you want a job you have to be able to do something besides take tests. News flash. How many “good students” out there would have been better served by the classes in financial literacy, technical drawing, or work-study internships usually reserved for the non-college bound? I would have. Probably as many as the students in those classes who would have been better served if they’d been given a crack at advanced French, poetry, or trig.

Our obsession with associating “success” with book learning, as it were, often extends beyond ignoring soft skills to ignoring, or at least down playing, technical skills—trades, working with your hands. “Eighty percent of jobs in the future will not require bachelor’s degrees, but they will require highly specialized training,” Barry Weinberg, president of Fulton-Montgomery Community College told The Daily Gazette in a May 18 article on how the domestic energy industry is afraid it’s going to run out of workers. “We need people who can work with their hands,” said James Buhrmaster of Scotia’s Buhrmaster Energy Group later in the article.

Still, several people in a forum held by Assemblyman Paul Tonko, chair of the Assembly Energy Committee, said that high-school students apparently don’t see technical jobs as “glamorous” even though they pay well. (Most of these non-BA- having technicians will be earning more than most BA-having folk I know in short order.)

Is this our national problem with science education? Our numbers of even college-educated engineers are dropping drastically in comparison to other countries. A troublingly dark-ages religious/political attitude toward science, as Hillary Clinton described in her RPI graduation speech, is certainly part of it. But is it also that actually making things and figuring out how things go has gotten tainted as “unglamorous”? What a lack of imagination.

If our goal is the opportunity for success—economic and fulfillment—for all, here would be my first steps: Living wages for all jobs. Actively shedding all assumptions about which kids are going to go in what direction. And a reconfigured high-school system that focuses on a wide range of skills, learning, and experiences and takes responsibility for educating its students, not just preparing them to be educated further down the road.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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