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Patrick Welsh is wrong about too many going to college

[This is my Local Living section column for July 29, 2010.]

My favorite teacher/essayist, Patrick Welsh, had an intriguing piece in USA Today July 7 about what he considers an overabundance of high school students going on to college. The same sentiments were expressed in a well-phrased letter from Eugene Morgan of Wheaton published on the Post’s editorial page June 20.

Morgan said he hoped our political and educational leaders read a recent Metro piece by my colleague Carol Morello about growing numbers of college graduates taking up skilled trades “and realize that encouraging every student to go to college is not realistic.” Welsh said many students at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, where he teaches English, go off to college without the skills or motivation to do well there, “but how many need to?”

There has long been doubt about the necessity of college for all, even in this region with the nation’s highest percentage of bachelor’s degrees. Now that the promise of college is being used to motivate some of our most disadvantaged public school students, we wonder if those kids need to go into debt when they can have fine careers as legal assistants and plumbers with less risk to their financial security and self-esteem.

A fall-scheduled book by Stanford scholar David F. Labaree argues that growing college envy does little to erase social inequities, but forces everyone to seek even higher credentials (we’re going to need soon something better than a doctorate, he says) while bankrupting our families and our government.

Such arguments seem logical, but ignore the educational and cultural consequences of abandoning the idea of college for all who want it. They also exaggerate the pressure put on high schoolers to make the college choice.

“We educators—and most parents—keep giving all kids the impression that without a college degree, they will be on a slippery slope to oblivion and poverty,” said Welsh, who also contributes to the Post’s Sunday Outlook section. He doesn’t cite any evidence of that. I once knew a teacher, the famous Jaime Escalante, who did this all the time, but he was very atypical.

Parents around here don’t have to say such things because going to college has become second-nature to them and their children, as instinctual as taking an August vacation. The majority of American parents don’t have college degrees and are less bothered when their children don’t lust for them. As long as our kid has a job that gets her out of our house, we parents don’t complain much, although we are ready to help if college becomes her choice.

Morgan and Welsh make the mistake of seeing college as nothing more than a route to certain careers, unnecessary for those who, as Morgan says, “fix our cars and computers and clean up oil spills in Louisiana.” The life-long benefits of four years studying the world, testing one’s interests and communing with other thoughtful young adults seem lost on them. What do they say of other vital life choices that can cost as much as college and still have little connection to future job prospects? Would Morgan or Welsh argue that starting a family, joining a church or buying a home are similarly a waste of time?

Welsh cites a study that by 2018, two out of three jobs will not require even two-year college degrees, just licenses or certificates or job training. He says the four qualities most prized by employers are a work ethic, people skills, presentation skills and social responsibility. I know Welsh wants to challenge all students, so he should add that qualifying for that training or license, or acquiring those qualities, requires the same creative and aggressive teaching needed to get ready for college.

Show me how to prepare for a good life without the challenge of a college-and-life-conscious high school program. I don’t see it yet. I am particularly uncomfortable with any plan that lets 14-year-old ninth graders choose a vocational track, as used to happen with low-income kids. Welsh hates that as much as I do, but his piece encourages those who don’t think it’s so bad.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page.

By Jay Mathews  | July 28, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  Eugene Morgan, Patrick Welsh, encouraging people who want to limit challenge for all, they exaggerate the pressure to go to college, they overlook the non-career benefits of college, they say too many students go to college  
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Thanks, Jay, you are right on the mark! The whole "idea of the university" has devolved into some kind of extended job training, when, in fact, the real idea is about the lifelong pursuit of intellectual fulfillment. A real college education teaches the student how to develop a thoughtful perspective on life ("the habit of philosophizing" as Cardinal Newman might say), to see human behavior and social issues in the context of history and culture, to partcipate effectively in the ongoing creation of the good society. Our democratic form of government requires well-educated citizens, not just mere literacy but significant critical thinking abilities along with the perspectives gained through organized study of history, sociology, philosophy, the arts and sciences. Developing highly effective advanced skills in critical reasoning, writing and numeracy (and technology proficiency today) are important collegiate goals, but the overriding goal is the quest for intellectual growth through continuous learning. And, by the way, more than 40% of students in higher education today are over age 25, an indicator of the plain fact that a higher education is not just a post-high-school rite of passage but a part of life through the ages. Just like we must keep focusing on health and fitness for our bodies, higher education focuses on the continuing health and fitness of our minds. Minds that keep growing and questing after knowledge are far more likely to succeed not only in today's workplaces but in those jobs and careers that we cannot even imagine in the future. Short-sighted educational prescriptions to relegate some students into specific job categories today diminish their long-term opportunities to move into new careers and repress their lifetime economic potential. Reports earlier this week pointed out that the U.S. is falling behind other nations in the educational level of our population. We need every student in school today to have high aspirations for lifelong learning.
(Pat McGuire, President
Trinity Washington University)

Posted by: TrinityPresident | July 28, 2010 7:25 PM | Report abuse

As a high school teacher, I guess what really bothers me lately is the extreme emphasis that all kids should go to college and how we structure our high school curriculum around that emphasis.

It seems there is so much emphasis put on students to follow a cookie cutter college prep curriculum in high school in order to be able to get into the "best" college. As a result, I believe we are denying many students the opportunity to develop their creativity and discover their true interests while still in secondary school.

I often question the wisdom of our continuing emphasis on the so-called "core curriculum". This core curriculum I am referring to was developed in 1893 by "The Committee of Ten".

Since then, these core courses have mostly been taught in a vacuum in separate classes without much attempt to help students make concrete connections between the knowledge gained in those courses and everyday life.

In addition, the role that standardized testing currently plays in our educational policies creates an even greater vacuum than ever before.

Now in the 21st century no one really seems to ever suggest that it might be time to re-evaluate that concept of teaching courses in a vacuum and how it dominates the secondary school experience.

I have been teaching high school computer-aided-design (CAD) classes for over 20 years. Almost every one of my students that have gone on to become successful engineers and architects who I remain in contact with have credited my courses as some of the most valuable classes they took in high school or college.

Classes such a CAD or other technical courses have the potential to be an excellent vehicle for delivering important concepts taught in “core” classes while making those concepts relative to “real life” ideas that to which many students can relate.

Furthermore, I have been told that many college admissions guidelines discard grades earned in classes like CAD and only consider the “core” classes.

I just believe that we are doing a disservice to many of our intelligent students who have much potential by trying to always force them into “cookie-cutter” curriculum ideas, especially when it come to college admission guidelines.

Personally, I have two sons. I have three things I wish for my two sons. 1. For them to be happy. 2. For them to be able to take care of themselves and support themselves. 3. To never have to worry about taking care or supporting their mother or me.

Whether it is a college education or a different educational path that helps lead to those things then so be it.

Posted by: MisterRog | July 28, 2010 9:16 PM | Report abuse

The last college course course I ever took that wasn't part of an employer paid career development plan was a graduate level sociology course in Crime and Delinquency, or something like that. We had an assigned reading from a journal on “Conflict” and one of the conclusions of the article was that “99% of the juveniles involved in 'gang warfare' did so with one or more other juveniles”. That article was written by a PHD product of the college system some people seem to want most kids to go to.
Now here is what may seem to be an unrelated anecdote, but that the previous poster MisterRog should enjoy and understand. From 2003-2008 I owned an Internet cafe in Albany, NY. A lot of clientele were middle school and high school aged kids who would come in and play LAN and Internet games. One day I overheard 2 kids(eighth graders I think) playing World of Warcraft share very complicated and detailed multi-step instructions on how to get from one side of that 3d world to the other side to join a "raid". While they were waiting for the raid to start they got in an argument about whether or not Boston and Buffalo were in New York Sate and whether they were North, South, East, or West of Albany.
This is 2010 not 1810. In many respect the educational system we have today isn't that much different than it was in 1810. The goal of our educational system, in my mind, should be to match up the educational needs and wants of society with the educational needs and wants of its citizens. The goal shouldn't be to teach “significant critical thinking abilities along with the perspectives gained through organized study of history, sociology, philosophy, the arts and sciences” or “highly effective advanced skills in critical reasoning, writing and numeracy”, or any other such nonsense. I don't see how lining students up in rows facing a teacher for 16 years, learning basically the same things kids learned 200 years ago, is a very good way to accomplish reasonable educational goals. You know that old saying “when your only tool is a hammer everything looks like a nail”? Well, our current educational system is a “hammer” smashing the minds of our poor kids for 12-16 years, and its getting the results you'd expect. There's a whole host of teaching tools available out there, some of which are already being used quite effectively, but unfortunately mainly outside the traditional educational establishment, that will get us where we should want to be going much better than the hammer we're using now.
In closing I'd like to say that any educator who doesn't regularly play video games, particularly an MMORPG(ex World of Warcraft) or a strategy game(ex Age of Empires), is derilict in their duty. If you really want an eye opener , find a game that yout think requires “critical thinking”, invite over some middle schoolers to play against, then see how you with your 16+ years of “critical thinking producing” education makes out.

Posted by: david_r_fry | July 28, 2010 10:50 PM | Report abuse

Hoo-rah. The godmother for this blog, producer Erica Pytlovany, has done it again. This post was mysteriously closed to comments, but she just got it reopened.
I too attempted to post a comment earlier saying that this is NOT, it turns out, my July 29 column for the Local Living section. I was out of touch when it was decided to hold that column in the paper until I get back from vacation, and did not know I should have held this blog post until it was too late. So please don't try to find it in the paper this week.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | July 29, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you seem to argue for the four-year college path from what appears to be primarily an emotional perspective -- with which I can sympathize -- without really supplying any hard facts to back up your position. Mr. Welsh, on the other hand, acknowledges a background which could support a similar bias, but steps objectively back and questions the status quo while citing research. And Patrick Welsh is absolutely right to question the value of traditional college, especially when spending thousands of dollars and hours at college has become for Washington area families "as instinctual as taking an August vacation."

Mr. Welsh makes an excellent case that four-year-college should be just one option among many on the path to fulfillment and success. If we're going to dismiss this position, we should at least match Welsh's rational approach. Ironically, Trinity's Pat McGuire, while supporting your position, references a statistic which could vitiate her and your argument (depending on the source and context): she says, "40% of students in higher education today are over age 25," which makes me wonder what those old-kids were doing right after high school graduation. President McGuire's emphasis on "continuous learning" is laudable, but we're wearing blinders to believe that the traditional, four-year college experience is the only path through and to learning.

High schools students ARE inundated inside and outside their classrooms with the mantra that college is the only path to success. Jay, you seem to question this characterization, but I see and hear in my school the same mono-focus Mr. Welsh and MisterRog describe.

Actually, the most important issue that comes from this dialogue is, if high schools -- and we parents and teachers -- place so much value on college immediately after high school, how good of a job are we doing in aligning the high school experience with college success? Mr. Welsh states, "While T.C. Williams boasts about the 80% going on to college, it makes no effort to track what happens to these kids." I don't know of any other high school that tracks its graduates' college successes either. An examination of the ability to achieve goals is crucial to the success of any organization, but high schools do nothing to see if their customers are actually successful in college.

Questions like Mr. Welsh's force us to reflect on Bowen's findings in Crossing the Finish Line that high schools add little to the chances of our children being successful in college. They force us to examine why we're getting them into college, but not preparing them adequately to be successful once there. Similarly, Ms. McGuire needs to examine why only 30% or so of college students graduate in 4-6 years.

There are many paths to success, to happiness, to fulfillment, and we should never blindly travel one without fully understanding all our options -- and our choices. Similarly, I would consider decisions on family, religion, and home just as seriously.

Posted by: JDunning | July 29, 2010 5:54 PM | Report abuse

"Would Morgan or Welsh argue that starting a family, joining a church or buying a home are similarly a waste of time?"

Not a waste of time, but a substantial financial and time commitment that should not be taken on lightly and is not for everyone. There should not be any shame in being childless, churchless, or renting if that is your choice. And there should not be any shame in getting your life skills outside higher ed.

Posted by: jackaroe | July 29, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

Evidence that pressure is put on high schoolers to make the college choice is so ubiquitous there is no need to cite references. Unless they have rich parents, most kids go to college with the expectation that it will allow them to get better jobs than they could with just a high school diploma. With the continued growth of automation and robotics dramatically raising productivity levels, the number of people of age to enter the work force is growing faster than the creation of job openings. Hence employers use college degrees as a first order filter of applicants, even for jobs in which employees will use little of what they learned in typical liberal arts college curricula.

Many high school graduates are living away from their parents for the first time when they enter college, and are more concerned about the social contacts they make than their formal education. (The social contacts may actually be of more value because so many job opportunities are filled via networking.)

This is not to denigrate the value of college in creating an educated citizenry who can appreciate the finer things of life and are necessary for a true democracy to flourish. Its just that the current reality is that for most people the purpose of college is just to get one's ticket punched.

While the need for some sort of reform of this system has never been greater, it is hardly a new concept that people who graduate college with majors in such subjects as English and Political Science will have a hard time finding jobs in those fields, while the demand for math, science and engineering majors exceeds the supply of Americans with degrees in those subjects.

Posted by: BTMPost | July 30, 2010 4:44 AM | Report abuse

As a high-school English teacher, Mr. Welsh has undoubtedly been asked by some students, "Why do I need to learn all this Shakespeare and Wordsworth? It's not going to help me be an engineer" (or football player, or nurse, or whatever). And he has undoubtedly delivered the lecture we all heard in high school: knowledge is its own reward, no knowledge is wasted, education allows you to be more flexible in your choices, and you need to be a well-rounded individual. But now he argues that if it won't help you in a paying job you don't need to bother.

Basically, what he's saying is that the "lower classes"--the skilled workers--don't need to think as carefully about non-work subjects as their betters, that a plumber or a salesclerk doesn't need to be able to wonder about the parallels, if any, between the Arizona immigration law and the anti-immigration movement of the 1920s.

There's a name for this. It's called snobbishness. If you don't need the education for your job, you need it for your life.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 30, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Thank you MisterRog and to everyone who helps people create real things or concrete plans for them in design and drawing classes.

If Patrick Welsh didn't have it right, there would not have be such a growth of county and community colleges. What Welsh also has right is that turning around the order, county and community college first, "learning" for life later, would engage more students and respect their needs to engage the world, even if it means getting out of the one world most of their teachers have spent their life in.

Posted by: incredulous | July 31, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Welsh is right and you are wrong, Jay. College is not job training and should not be sold as such. Furthermore, any high school freshman that has the desire to go to college should be encouraged to work toward that goal in high school. But not every student wants or needs to go to college. One of the worst mistakes we made all over the country was closing down vocational programs. We should have those programs for the students who want them.

Besides, in this country, someone who doesn't go to college right after high school certainly has that opportunity later in life.

Posted by: Nemessis | August 1, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

This now manic drive to push all high schoolers into college has a long history. My father was a chemistry professor who remarked in the very early 70's how the lowered standards for admission, which were to help "diversity", brought in students who had little interest in actually learning. They simply didn't want to do the work required to learn the material and pass the tests. It is so much worse now.

A brother who was a dean for Devry often told stories of his students just a few years ago brazenly sitting in class telling him they hadn't read the material, much less studied it, and wanted him to "explain" it to them in easier-to-understand" terms. In other words, do the work for the students. They figured they had paid for the class and, like any typical American consumer, had some kind of right to get anything they wanted, including a college degree! Money-gubbing colleges don't help this either, even when their staff warn them that by dumbing down the curriculum, they are cheapening any degree earned there and especially short-changing future employers who expect certain expertise with the graduates.

The disappearance of so-called vocational classes can only hurt the learning available to the huge variety of people in public schools. COLLEGE IS NOT FOR EVERYONE, so why the manic push from guidance counselors and the media? A better understanding of what is missed by the lack of literal hands-on experiences in schools can be understood by a reading of the recent book, Shop Class as Soul Craft. It has answers for many of our education questions of today.

Jay, I hope you are extremely grateful for the posters who respond to your columns. Most of them are so spot-on with knowledge and experience you should turn over column space for original material from them.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | August 2, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

I find it disappointing that although our economy has changed, the skills necessary for jobs have changed, and even the way society communicates has changed...higher education really has not.

Personally, I would like to our educational institutions do some research about what needs to happen to make college relevant again. My suspicions are that in addition to requiring certain SAT scores and prerequisite classes for enrollment in school, two years of real-world work experience wouldn’t hurt our students either. My suggestion, have some career academian devise a study of the success of students, comparing those fresh out of high school compared to those with at least a couple of years of work-experience. We seem to have plenty of members of our military coming out of service and into college, so you could potentially have another study group there. I would love to see those results.

For the sake of full disclosure, I am 37 years old and enrolled in an MBA program. There are a number of young students in my courses that have not worked a day in their life, and went on for their Master’s degree after finishing their undergraduate studies. It is amazing some of the useless non-sense that comes out of these students mouths. It is further depressing to see how they lack the basic skills necessary to succeed in business.

Regardless of whether or not college is for everyone, wouldn’t we serve everyone involved better by changing the curriculum to something that actually benefits the student and society?

Posted by: BethelAlaskan | August 3, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

To David_R_Fry...

Thank you for your comment. You made me think back to a game that was out years ago called “Railroad Tycoon”. You had to build railroads, perform maintenance, purchase land, manage your company’s stock portfolio, watch your profit margins, manage your bond ratings, issue bonds at the right time, pay back bonds at the right time, hire managers and a host of “mundane” business decisions. I found that old CD ROM sitting around and was able to get it to run in compatibility mode in Windows 7. My 10 year old is playing this game every night. We had a long discussion about just what stocks and bonds are and methods that can be used to improve your ratings, stock prices, etc. Your post reminded me of this, and I wanted to let you know that you are correct…there is a lot of educational potential in these kinds of games.

Posted by: BethelAlaskan | August 3, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

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