College for All? Failure for Many?

Someone sent me this recent article from The Atlantic Monthly. It’s quite interesting and a good deal of the issues that come up should be interesting to anyone that teaches college. The question that grabbed me was on the author of the article, Professor X, broaches towards the end: Is college really for everyone? Is it actually doing as much good as we think by making a college education a necessity? One could point out to Professor X that er…according to my unscientific knee jerk poll about half (or less than half) of the American population actually holds a college degree. Regardless, Professor X tells us about his or her students, a good many of them can’t string together a coherent sentence and are subsequently perplexed (shocked) by the craptastic grades they are doled out. After all, they have gone back to school to “do themselves and their kids right” (as some of my students have said to me) and equally important, satisfy the demands of the broader culture. Anyway, here’s an excerpt, but the whole article is worth a look:

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in the papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades.

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.

1 thought on “College for All? Failure for Many?

  1. I think that the United States needs to develop vocational education tracks that are rigorous. For example, vocational tech training in Germany is a joint government-industry program that prepares people for careers in engineering, technology, agriculture, etc. Right now, many vocational education programs are stop-gap measures for people who didn’t receive the full benefit of primary and secondary education. I think that the returns to such programs are diminishing because of global competitiveness and the fact that we’re in a service-based market. Even tech employers need entry level workers who are innovative, quick learners, and well-educated. Of course, this vocational tech reform hinges on our ability to improve primary and secondary education for everyone. (

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