Americans who say “college isn’t for everyone” never mean their own kids

Teachers need to be careful about which students they steer toward vocational school.
Teachers need to be careful about which students they steer toward vocational school.
Image: AP Photo/Brendan Hoffman
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My brother, a businessman who went to Brown and MIT, and I have a running dinnertime argument.  It goes something like this:

He says:

The traditional four-year college system in the United States is broken beyond repair. The US should shift toward the German model, in which more high school students are tracked into a career path, and postsecondary training for the majority of citizens is targeted, vocational education. Why take chemistry in college if you are never going to use it?

She says:

We should actually prepare all students for the possibility of a four-year, broad-based college education. Not some. All. Because the slope of “less than all” is extremely slippery.

The notion of tracking more students into vocational education, given the increasing income inequality, class stasis, and racial achievement/opportunity gaps in this country, sets off alarm bells to me about what the criteria for sorting kids would be: Who would be making decisions about which students are “college material” and who should be headed for vocational education?  How early in a student’s career? Based on what?

How to solve inequality

Those alarms do not seem to register with my brother—which makes sense, as most of our discussions spiral into argument when we reach the third rail of race and class inequality. After college, I became an urban high school teacher while my brother went into management consulting. Our divergent post-collegiate paths both explain and inform our conflicting views on the role of higher education.

And yet, I understand that my brother’s disparaging remark about chemistry stems from frustration: many elements of his educational experience felt disconnected from his interests. Both high school and college students should have many more opportunities for rigorous, hands-on, applied learning toward their interests.

But we don’t need to adopt Germany’s education model to increase applied learning. Given the countries’ vastly different racial histories and demographics, it doesn’t translate. We need a different model, one that puts equity at its center instead of tracking more students away from college. And here’s why.

The wrong people are having this conversation

When I hear adults advocating for more vocational tracking and training for young people, they are usually well-educated, upper middle-class professionals. They are probably as well intentioned as my brother, want the best for the US economy, and want to increase opportunities for other people’s kids. The problem is that they are having this conversation solely about other people’s kids, not theirs.  None of my friends in Scarsdale or Wellesley or Palo Alto want their kids to have more access to vocational education. They want their kids to “go Ivy League” or at least get into the most selective college they can. And why wouldn’t they? When the conversation about increasing vocational education centers primarily on the urban, low-income students I champion, it makes me suspicious–especially since, according a new ACT report (pdf), most first-generation students actually aspire to attend a four-year college.

“Undermatching” low-income students and students of color

My biggest concern about an increasingly vocational focus, in lieu of college preparation, is fueled by the growing body of academic research, most recently by Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery, on the phenomenon of college “undermatching” of low-income and minority students. Undermatching happens when students—who on the basis of their grades and test scores, are qualified to attend selective colleges—end up enrolling in less- or non-selective schools or even fail to attend college, even though selective colleges tend to have more financial aid and higher graduation rates.  I have heard and seen countless stories of guidance counselors, teachers, and parents counseling poor students to lower their college-going sights toward less rigorous, less selective, and less broad-based educational options–in many cases, represented by vocational education—largely based on their race and class.  Several reports developed for the Pathways to College Network document these judgments and their consequences for students.

One of my favorite advisees, a Latina valedictorian of a low-performing school in urban New Jersey, was advised by her counselor to apply to the local community college to study medical technology. Instead, she enrolled in academically challenging courses and is now in medical school. Harvard is countering this phenomenon with a new media campaign to raise students’ sights and connect more low-income students to public and private colleges.  Notably, the effort will use social media messages and celebrity videos to counter the pervasive perception that poor kids can’t afford or fit in at selective colleges.

Unemployment gaps

Germany, with its higher percentage of vocational training, does have considerably lower youth unemployment than the rest of Europe.In the US, though, bachelor’s degree earners are winning in the 21st century economy. According to the 2010-2012 American Community Survey, unemployment rates in the US are 10.9% for adults with high school degrees only, 8.7% for adults with some college or an associate’s degree, and only 4.5% for bachelor’s degree holders.  The National Research Center for Career and Technical Education (NRCCTE) proposes, “High school and postsecondary CTE programs that lead to associate degrees, certificates, and industry-recognized credentials can help young people find skilled employment and give them the option of later returning to school for a higher degree.” Even the NRCCTE implies that vocational education should be not the end, but a means to an end: a higher degree. And recently, there has been a welcome shift in many high schools from stand-alone, traditional vocational education to increased career and technical education (CTE) integrated into a rigorous, relevant college-prep education.

I readily acknowledge that the traditional liberal arts education is not for everyone, and that not all young people want to or will attend college immediately after high school. But we need to ensure that every young person has the academic, social, and financial tools to get to college eventually. Otherwise, we run the risk of sorting students onto a vocational training path of potentially limited options based in subtle and not-so-subtle ways on where they live, where they were born, and how much money their parents make.

I assume I will hear from my colleagues in career and technical education who do champion a larger focus on vocational training.  Also, to those affluent parents who want vocational education instead of college for your children, give me a call. I welcome the arguments, preferably over dinner. My brother, the MBA, is buying—perhaps the ultimate testament to the power and value of higher education for all.