Monday, September 8, 2014

The College Bias

It's not new and it's not hard to explain. After all, virtually all teachers are college educated. We're pre-disposed to a collegiate bias.

Add to that the correlation between more education and more money, and add to that the manner in which DC (by way of CCSS) has institutionalized college as The Goal, and it's no surprise that in education, we have a decidedly pro-college bias.

In many high schools, it's built into the curriculum. College prep courses are for the smart kids. Non-college prep courses are for the not-so-smart ones. Non-college prep courses are not supposed to be anybody's deliberate choice, but a sort of academic safety net one falls into if one is not capable enough to hack it in the college prep classes. Sometimes we are extremely explicit about this. In her article for NEA (Ten Soul Saving Tips for New Teachers), Susan Anglada Bartley offers this tip:

8. Start with the assumption that all students wish to pursue a college or post-high school education. If you walk into your room assuming that some kids can make it to college, while others can never walk that path, they will know. Resentments will build. They will feel discriminated against and they won’t listen to you. You will lose their trust. But if you chose to empower them all by sharing resources and encouraging them all toward college, they will appreciate the opportunity. Shine the light. If you are in a high poverty environment, remember this second mantra: As a teacher, I am a guide toward a brighter future. 

Well, no. Bartley, like way too many people, has conflated "won't go to college" with "be a big dumb loser at life."

I teach an honors class at my school, but I also teach our non-college prep class. I do not start the year by telling them that they can totally go to college (and thereby imply that they should want to); what I tell them is that they are in the class designed for people headed toward life "out there" and other students in that other class are headed for college. And both are equally valid and valuable.

I know, I know. All those charts showing that the more education you get, the more money you have (of course, articles touting that data rarely ask if it might be the other way around). And my President exhorts students to dream big and shoot for college. And I sent my own kids to college, and felt strongly enough about it that I'll be paying for it for years to come.

But at the same time, I am troubled by our attitude about blue collar work, our tendency to treat good solid labor as if it's some sort of bronze medal, proof that you weren't good enough to come in first place.

As Mike Rowe said repeatedly, these are the people who make civilized life possible for the rest of us. We devalue them with our low regard and with our lack of honor and attention. And we especially devalue them by telling our young people, "Oh, gracious, no. You don't want to become one of those."

We try to justify it as steering students away from types of work that are drying up and disappearing, and yet while we are still cranking out a gazillion college professor wannabe's for the two remaining college teaching jobs (part time) left in the country, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a ten million person shortfall in trained laborers by 2020. If you prefer anecdotal support, I can tell you that my brother, who manages a medium-sized industrial operation, is always looking for welders, because there aren't enough. I'd rather we didn't, but if you must measure success in dollars, I can tell you that good welders make good money.

And job (and money) prospects aside, we are perfectly willing to tell students to pursue their dreams no matter what. We tell them to go for it-- unless their dream is working at a modest labor job and hunting and fishing and sitting on the front porch.

It's not just that we have to stop pushing the notion that getting some sort of post-secondary degree is the only way to make a living. We have got to stop pushing the notion that people who get a college education are somehow better people, people more likely to win at life. My non-college classes over the years have included their share of students who are smart, hard-working, and decent men and women of considerable integrity. I have watched them grow up and take their places as productive citizens, loving parents, and fine members of this community. I would never, ever, tell them that they failed to "dream big" by going to college, and consequently their lives are meager and small.

And yes-- there are children who need to escape their circumstances, grow bigger than the world that grew them. But college is not the only worthy escape hatch.

In education, we need to walk a fine line between equipping students to follow their dreams and helping them aspire to greater dreams than they may come up with on their own. We need to do our best to give our students the tools to pursue the dreams they choose for themselves, whatever those might be. It seems so obvious, and yet the umpty-bazzillion dollars in college debt now being carried by twenty-somethings (and their parents) suggests that it is not-- not all roads to a happy and productive future lead through a college campus.


  1. My dad's father was an immigrant, who took his working papers after 8th grade in the late 1800s, and "apprenticed with the Irish," who ran the plumbing trades in NYC in those days. He went on to become a wealthy plumbing contractor, until he lost everything in the Depression. My dad went to college and law school, but often said his father had made a lot more money. When I showed my first paycheck from teaching to my dad, he said, "You should have been a plumber." I used to tell that story to all my classes.

  2. I bet those welders are making more than a SBUX barista with an English lit degree. :) One aspect of Japanese culture that Americans would do well to learn from is their deep respect of a master craftsperson.

  3. Thanks so much for writing this. As a former special education teacher, I know how deflating it can be to tell all students that they must/should go to college. College is not for everyone, it's not even for all the ones whose life circumstances allow them to attend. I have been saying for years that one of the great disservices we did to our nation is to eliminate vocational education from our high schools. So many of those jobs are desperately in need of talented young people to join their ranks. In addition, careers such as electrician, mason, and carpenter are in high demand. In Michigan, there are thousands of machinist jobs left unfilled because no one has the skills or training to fill them. Thank you again for writing this.