Thursday, December 04, 2008

Let’s Stop Preparing Kids for College

(Note: I’ve been sitting on this post for about two weeks because it just didn’t quite feel right yet but, with these stories along with this blog post that I ran across yesterday, I figured I should just go ahead and publish it.)

Seriously, let’s stop. Now, since I work at a high school that sends about 92% of our graduates to college, let me try to explain.

There seems to be two main arguments that high schools should be preparing kids for college. First, because a college education provides them greater job opportunities and will result in greatly increased job earnings over their lifetime. Second, that college helps them become well educated, well rounded, thoughtful and involved adults. (Some cynical folks would add two more: it keeps college professors employed and it keeps young folks out of the workforce for several more years.) Let’s look at each of those two primary reasons.

There’s no question that the statistics show that folks with a college education are likely to earn much more than those with just a high school education. According to the U.S. Census bureau, “workers 18 and over with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $51,206 a year, while those with a high school diploma earn $27,915 .“

But even assuming money is our goal here (and there’s lot of research that supports that money – as long as you have enough to meet basic needs - does not make you happy or feel fulfilled), let’s take a moment and dive a little deeper into that topic. Most likely there are many reasons for the earnings discrepancy. College work can give one the necessary skills and preparation to be able to do certain jobs. And there’s also the very fact of the college degree credential allowing one to get hired (which could very well change). But I think we also need to keep in mind the bias that’s built into those statistics. Students who not only get accepted to college, but are successful at completing college, already have many built-in advantages over those who don’t, advantages that are not dependent on a college education. These include all the socioeconomic advantages (income, parent education level, resources, background knowledge, etc.) and the cognitive advantages (they were successful enough at school to get into and through college). Who’s to say that if you removed college from this equation (perhaps substituting an internship or on-the-job training with on-going professional development) that those students still wouldn’t achieve a higher income?

I also wonder how the percent would break down between college providing you training and college simply providing you the credential. Fifty-fifty? Sixty-forty? Forty-sixty? I’m not sure, but from my conversations with a variety of business folks over the last few years, very few of them felt like the content that students had “covered” in high school or college was really what they were looking for in an employee, or what they felt an employee had to have to be successful in their company (also see Tony Wagner’s work). They all felt they could teach them the specific content they needed to know for their job, but that employees needed other skills to be successful. Now, there are certainly exceptions to this, probably most notably in fields with a need for scientific, engineering, or accounting knowledge as a few examples. But there are certainly other ways for students to get that knowledge that might look very different from the typical college experience, including trade schools, internships/mentorships, and of course burgeoning online options (skill-based or things like MIT Open Courseware).

And let’s look at the financial numbers a little more deeply as well. According to the College Board the average annual tuition at a Private four-year college is $25,143 (up 5.9 percent from last year), and at a Public four-year college it’s $6,585 (up 6.4 percent from last year). (For all colleges it’s up 439% since 1982).

Now, for our hypothetical student that decided to forgo college, let’s invest those four years of tuition (I’m not including room and board here, since our student would still have those expenses outside of college, although they are often higher at college). Given the recent market meltdown, many folks think that once the market bottoms out (sometime in the next 1 – 24 months), we will most likely experience a long period of returns that come close to the market average – so 8-10% a year for perhaps a decade. So, take the $28,978 for four years of public college tuition (four years at the average tuition, factoring in the 6.4% yearly increase) and invest that in a Total Stock Market Index fund and 10 years from now that student will have $71,035 (using 9% return), or over $100,000 if they invest just $100 a month with a 50% match. This number balloons to a rather hefty $269,225 if you use the private college tuition numbers ($109,827 total for four years, based on current average and 5.9% yearly increase). (It would also be interesting to see the average annual salary comparisons between private and public college degree holders and see how that impacts this equation, but I digress.)

And this is not including any additional money they might have invested by entering the work force at least four years earlier, or the fact that they will have at least four years of additional earnings. (And that’s not something to be overlooked, starting to contribute to Social Security or a pension plan at age 18 instead of 22 or later, and investing in 401k’s or IRA’s at 18 instead of 22 or – more likely – much later because they’re paying off student loans.) So, our hypothetical student could be 28 years old with student loan debt, or 28 years old with $269K in the bank plus four additional years of earnings, investments and work experience.

For all of the reasons above, the financial argument – even if money is your sole determining factor – is not so clear cut. But, and this won’t surprise most of you, I don’t really care that much about that argument (and it certainly has some holes in it). But it was fun and I think some of those assumptions we make need to be examined more carefully.

So that takes us to the second argument – that a college education simply makes them a better person. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I would suggest that the best way to prepare them for that would be to do that in high school as well, not “prepare them for college.” As Chris Lehmann says:
What happens if school is real life, not preparation for real life?
Let’s make their high school experience meaningful and relevant, so that they rarely feel the need to ask the question, “When are we ever going to use this?” because the answer will be so darn obvious. So often the answer teachers typically give to that question is, “In the next course” – which is a travesty. If we can’t give them a better answer than that, then we shouldn’t be teaching that topic. Let’s follow the words of Seneca that are posted in my school’s cafeteria, “Not for school, but for life, we learn.”

Oh, by the way, I would argue that if we do this – if we stop “preparing them for college” and actually make their education meaningful and relevant right now, a by-product will be they will actually be better prepared for college and the world of work. They won’t be meeting seat-time requirements with no regard for what they actually know and understand, but instead will be placed in relevant situations solving meaningful and important problems that will prepare them for college, the world of work, and to be effective and contributing citizens in a vibrant democracy.

So, like many others I wonder about whether college – in it’s current form – is the best solution for many of our students, and whether perhaps there will be alternative – and perhaps much better – ways to achieve our goals. I also wonder how much longer the credential of a college degree will be as important as it is now – there is a decent chance that may change faster than we think. Am I suggesting that our students shouldn’t be prepared for college? Not at all. But I think we too often confuse the means (college, a good job) with the ends (thoughtful, caring, happy and productive citizens and human beings). And the problem with having those means as your goal is that you too often end up nominally achieving the means, but completely failing to achieve the true ends.

So, should our goal be to prepare our students for college (and work)? Seneca didn’t think so.


  1. I don't disagree with making school relevant to students, but I am not willing to trust the fate of my students (nor my own children) on the idea that a college degree isn't important for their future. The students I teach come from extremely poor backgrounds and without the opportunities afforded by a college or trade school degree their future looks as bleak as their parents reality.

    If I find myself teaching my students children who come to me in the same cycle of poverty their parents came from, what good have I done?

  2. I see the point you are making Wm Chamberlain, and I agree breaking that cycle is difficult. What I feel Karl is saying though is that if you prepare a student for life by giving them critical thinking skills and a questioning spirit through relevant curriculum the end result is a much more prepared student for life, whether that life includes college or not is up to the individual.

    I joined the military following my high school education and returned to college after my enlistment. I would argue that the life experiences I had in the military informed my college success much more than my high school years, and it certainly gave me an interesting perspective to approach my students from.

    The fact in this day and age is that anyone with a library card can get the same education as an MIT student. The problem comes in how as a society we recognize that educational experience. Unfortunately, most employers require to see the piece of paper. If and when that trend changes we will be better off as a people.

  3. I'm sure this varies for different kids, but my college education had so much less to do with the classes I took than with the social interactions, group learning experiences, living on my own,internships, community service, campus organizations and other opportunities that I didn't have in high school and I wouldn't have had if I didn't got o college. I learned how to be an adult when trusted like one in college. High school to a degree is about learning teenage socialization. College does the same but with more freedom, more responsibility, and more opportunity.

  4. I really enjoy the way you encourage us to see a much bigger picture.
    The damaging idea that the task of one stage is to prepare students for what’s to come pervades and perverts more than just the last year of school. In our own system here in Australia, Year 10 (the 15/16 year olds) spend too much of their year being prepared for Years 11& 12; the last year of Primary is too often spent getting ready for High School; and so on. While some of this is natural and probably useful, too much of it leads us to lose sight of the child and his/her needs/interests. We teachers end up feeling our duty is to plaster on ‘necessary learning’, and we then ignore (and and too often by-pass) the child’s natural urge to learn more about the world, to become more skillful and so on. You can see the shutters going up, as students increasingly feel they need to satisfy their natural exhuberance and desire to learn outside of the classroom.

  5. Your point about the relevance being so obvious that "When are we ever going to use this?" need not be asked, and the concept that answering "In the next course" is a travesty certainly resonates with students.

    I have heard that question in math far more often than I have in any other class. And since 7th grade, the answer has more often than not been "in the next course." There is some pretty obvious relevance in early math, but in high school math relevance is somewhat...harder to find.

    I am interested to hear your thoughts on this, especially because you once were a high school math teacher. Do you think high school math is relevant to everyone? Is its relevance limited to a certain line of careers? Could it be made more relevant if it was taught with more than just "the next course" in mind?

  6. I guess people still do read my blog . . . :-)

  7. @Wm Chamberlain – I think Andrew (comment below yours) kind of summed it up. I’m not necessarily arguing against going to college, especially in the very near future when that credential is still important. But, as I said in the post, I’m not so sure how much longer that credential will be valued like it is today.

    I’m going to assume that it’s not so much college that you want your students to be “prepared” for so much as it is the opportunities that college currently affords them. Some folks would call that semantics but, as I tried to point out in my post, I don’t think it is. We want our students to be successful, productive and happy citizens, whether college is the means or something else. After all, college in and of itself doesn’t necessarily guarantee that, does it? For example, there are many college graduates who are today unemployed or underemployed, or stuck in a job that they don’t like, or in various other ways are unsatisfied and unproductive. And, of course, a large percentage of students who are “prepared” for and enter college don’t graduate, so should "college-ready" really be our goal? I’m assuming that neither of those things are what you want for your students.

    One of the problems is that so many people are focused on getting kids “college-ready” that I think they are losing sight of the big picture – they’re focusing on the means at the expense of the ends. For example, in Colorado (and of course other places, including Touch Choices, Touch Times – see this post) they have already raised and are considering raising again the college entrance requirements, requiring more math and more World Languages among other things. (Which, in effect, raises the graduation requirements in a school and district like mine.) This makes no sense to me (not that I’m against either math or World Languages). I’d like to see them come in and teach Trigonometry and Pre-Calculus to students who have no interest in mathematics and currently struggle just to make it through Algebra and Geometry. For that matter, I’d love for those folks to come in and take Trig/Pre-Calc themselves! It makes no sense to say, in effect, “Well, what we’re doing right now isn’t working, let’s just require even more of the same.” (Isn’t that the classic definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.) Instead of focusing on course (seat time) requirements, let’s talk about doing a better job of teaching, and about learning, and about what our kids needs to be successful in the 21st century.

    And, of course, if you boost those requirements, something will have to go. Most likely things like Art, Music and other courses that are “non-essential” to get kids “college-ready.” Is that really going to improve things for our kids? Our country? Our world?

  8. @Andrew Neely – Thanks for doing a better job in your comment than I did in my entire post. Humbling.

    I do think there is a decent chance that the credential requirement is going to change in the near future. I think it could go either way, but when you combine the funding and affordability issues higher ed has, and the many alternative ways people now have to possibly achieve the same education, I think there’s a chance.

  9. @Barry Bachenheimer – I’m sympathetic to that argument, but only one of those (living on your own) can’t be accomplished in high school. We already do many of those things in my high school right now, and could do more if we changed the focus of what we do from “preparing kids for college” to “preparing kids for life.” I think you sell high school students short – trust them, and they will rise to the challenge. (Can’t place the link right now, but there’s been some good thinking and writing about the extension of childhood and adolescence in the 20th century, and how we used to give teenagers much more responsibility – and perhaps we should go back to that.)

    And, post high school, many of those things could be accomplished in a variety of ways that look very different than college currently does – from internships to on-the-job mentorships to academies and ‘Libertas scholastica’. We’re so stuck on “This is the way it’s been, so this is the way it has to be,” that I think we’re missing some of the possibilities (and opportunities).

    Again, I’m not saying that college is necessarily a bad thing, and I think that colleges could easily adapt to get even better. But if they continue to outpace the rate of inflation, and if they continue to ignore the changing world around them, then they will become dangerously irrelevant (with apologies to Scott McLeod).

  10. @steve.shann – Thanks, although I’m sorry to hear that Australia suffers from some of the same issues. While I think it’s great that students learn outside of school, I think it’s a bad sign if students are more excited learning outside of school than in.

  11. @BenH – Ahhh, you’re going to get me in real trouble. Math is a tough one, because it’s very skills-based and some folks would argue that you have to “suffer through” years and years of building those skills before you can reach a level where you can realistically apply them. My answer to that is . . . . well, this is a family blog.

    I think our math curriculum is currently designed to create math professors (much more so than other curricula are designed to create professors in those fields). I’d be interested to know how many of your fellow AHS students are currently planning on becoming math professors. (And yes, I know, some won’t know and may end up becoming math professors, but I think most people would agree that number is really, really small.)

    What would I do? Well, don’t tell anyone in the Math Department, but a big part of me thinks we should eliminate math as a separate subject. Unless you’re planning on becoming a math professor or math theorist, math is very much a subject that should be applied – to science, economics, social sciences, and many other disciplines. In a perfect world, I think we would teach it in context, and in the school-I’m-creating-in-my-head, I’m thinking of doing something like that.

    The problem is, that’s really, really difficult to do. So, as an interim step, I would make our math courses much more integrated, both with other math courses and with courses in other departments. I would change the emphasis from “let’s prepare all kids for calculus” to “let’s teach kids a whole lot more probability and statistics,” because pretty much everyone needs to be literate in those areas to be successful (both in their careers and as citizens) in the 21st century. That doesn’t mean that I would ignore preparing kids for calculus, but I think we could do it in a way that works better for all kids and doesn’t hurt the kids going into calculus-based disciplines too much. (Note, I haven’t quite worked all the details out on this master plan. Okay, perhaps none of the details. But I think I’ll scribble my solution in the margin . . . math geek reference, 20 points to the first commenter to point out the reference.)

  12. On a less philosophical note, I think your compound interest argument doesn't hold much water because the students don't have that money to invest. Either they borrow it (which I don't think you can do to invest in securities), their parents give it to them, or they receive much of it from the colleges in the form of grants,aid, etc.. Now, there may be some parents willing to shell out what they would have paid for college to invest in the stock market...though for many right now would be a tough sell...but I don't see the colleges extending their grant money to those who don't attend their institutions. And, when you seem to imply that money shouldn't be the end result, using money as a main point seems a bit odd.
    However, I agree with your thoughts totally, as would most educators who want to engage kids in the process of really learning and creating things of meaning and value. The problem is the parents; they "know" the earning statistics as well as we do and want their kids to get their piece of the does that and if you don't tell them your high school is college preparatory they will leave...then who do you teach? The real rub here is to convince the parents that everything will be OK if their kids can think for themselves and be good people; how do we do that?

  13. Karl, you say that "I haven’t quite worked all the details out on this master plan." Maybe in a future post you could give the parameters and invite people from different disciplines and cultures to supply some of the detail?

  14. @Karl Fisch: Was it a reference to how Fermat was known for writing elegantly simple proofs in the margins? Until, of course, his great proof that couldn't quite fit was lost forever, sparking one of the greatest math challenges in history.

  15. @Josh Bubar – Yep, that would be one of those holes I talked about :-)

    But a couple of more thoughts around that argument. First, assuming the markets do come back, I will actually have all that money saved for my daughter by the time she’s college age. Just because most people don’t doesn’t mean they couldn’t.

    Second, you certainly can borrow money to invest in securities and it’s done all the time – it’s called leverage. On the negative side, that’s what’s caused this crisis on Wall Street. On the positive side, it’s how many folks have gotten rich in the stock market. So, if you were a betting person, you could take out large loans right now at historically very low interest rates and invest them in the market and, if the market returns, you would make a killing. In fact, I would bet there are hundreds of thousands of professional investors doing that right now.

    Third, it shouldn’t be a tough sell to get folks to invest in the market right now. If you believe that the more-or-less-capitalist system we have now is basically sound (which could be a legitimate debate), then this is exactly the time you want to buy. Buy low, sell high, right? Warren Buffet is investing left and right. The reason the “average” investor often loses money is because they buy high and then sell at times like these.

    Finally, though, it’s the assumptions we make the other way that interest me. Currently we are either investing our money (if we have it saved up), or borrowing (leveraging) money to pay for college in the anticipation of a future return. It’s a classic case of giving money to the middle man. Now, the assumption has been – and it’s been correct – that that middle man has been adding enough value to make that worthwhile. But what if that assumption is no longer valid?

  16. @Josh Bubar – Oops, didn’t address your last question. I don’t have time right now to fully address it, but I think conversations like this one – repeated multiple times across many blogs, newsletters, PTO meetings, faculty meetings, etc., is how we do that.

  17. @steve.shann - I'm not sure whether you or Ben are working harder to get me fired. :-)

  18. This is a great point of discussion. What would happen if schools stopped preparing for college? Could we stop trumpeting the need for test scores? Could students focus on real world skills?

    A scary thought for some I'm sure. But that's how you know it's of value.

    As I'm pretty sure someone here as already pointed out, College ready isn't the same as life ready.

  19. You might be interested in this Planet Money podcast (from NPR). It is another example of a college education not necessarily being the solution for everyone.

  20. Karl, you and I must have read the same NYTimes article this morning. I framed my post around the Governor's CAP4Kids town hall meetings they are having to discuss what postsecondary readiness means. While they will be throwing BILLIONS of dollars at this “landmark” education reform in Colorado, they are missing the fact that even if we prepare kids for college, they’re not going to be able to pay for it. Once they do pay for it, I’m not sure if they’ll truly see a long-term return on their investment in the sense that to pay for college, they will be focusing time and personal resources to income and not on personal advancement and many of those human qualities we value. It’s going to be nearly impossible to stop preparing kids for college when we have a Governor’s P-20, yes, 20, council and SB 212 directing our every move.

  21. Update regarding my probability and statistics versus Calculus argument. At the Colorado Association of School Board Conference a math professor at Harvey Mudd College said this and this.

    Apparently I'm not completely crazy.

  22. Karl, as always, I appreciate your critical thinking. As an Asian-American, your assertion would not have been popular in my family. However, my son is now working in high-tech, learning very valuable skills. He's decided that such experience is preferable over higher education and is working full time. I will support him.

  23. @Heather - thanks for the link.

    @Rick - Yeah, I'm worried where they're going with that.

    @meetjohnsong - Thanks for that perspective. Do you think that perhaps things are changing in the Asian-American community?

  24. To go off of Ben's first comment, I sincerely doubt that many subjects taught in school have any relevance in the day-to-day lives of a great many people. I don't see why we should just limit this to math. As a student who has stayed up into the wee hours of countless nights completing tedious homework comparable to vomiting bile, I'd like to think I have some experience with the subject. After all, the French Revolution, nuclear chemistry and Wuthering Heights pertain precious little to my own world, at the very least. Of course, there is the ubiquitous empire of the College Board (among other organizations), perpetually lurking over the shoulders of students and teachers alike to ensure they adhere to arbitrary standards defined by worthless tests.

    What exactly is relevant education?

  25. Wow, Mr. Fisch, I never expected to hear something like that from an Arapahoe faculty member. I have to agree with a lot of what you said though. Personally, I am excited for college not because it will prepare me for a career, but because of the professional learning atmosphere that you are able to be a part of. The emphasis on grades seems to be different from high school, and I think more beneficial. When will there be a time when stop preparing for something else? That's a question I don't have an answer for yet, but it is something to think about

  26. @hannah - And you should be looking forward to college. None of the above was meant to say that college can't be a wonderful and amazing learning experience, simply that the goal is not the "preparing" or the credential of college.

  27. @TomR – I would suggest you ask your Social Studies, Science and Language Arts teachers those questions. It’s certainly possible to teach those to you in ways that aren’t relevant, but I think it’s a mistake to assume that those can’t be relevant to you. I think the French Revolution can teach you a lot about politics and human relations that is very relevant. Wuthering Heights also speaks to human relations as well as social class (if I recall, it’s been a long time since I’ve read it.). I think nuclear chemistry is extremely relevant in an age of global climate change and alternative energies.

  28. I find your thoughts on this very interesting and they will be on my mind for quite some time... I am a student at the University of South Alabama reading your blogs as an assignment for my EDM310 class. I love the approach you took to this topic and it really got me thinking. I remember asking in high school, as well as all my classmates asking, "Why are we learning this? I will never use it!" Never should those words be uttered at an educational spout! I want to be a teacher students can take from, not be bored and nap from!
    Twitter name: krystleriner
    Thank you!