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.
| 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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