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.