Deirdre Higgins is a veteran educator who has taught in Green Dot and Alliance charter schools, Los Angeles Unified School District, the certificate program at University of California Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California.
It’s that time of year. High schools around the country are posting the news of college acceptances.
Tacked to a board in the halls are smiling photos of 12th-graders with their college acceptances listed beside their names. This is the wall of pride for many college-bound students. However, for those students who have made a choice not to attend college for either financial or personal reasons, this can be the wall of shame.
From 9th grade on, the expectation is to prepare students for the ultimate reward for time spent in high school — college. The curriculum that once was more varied and included vocational classes is now aligned specifically with college requirements. This works well for those who head off to college, but according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 62% of high school students go on to college and about 40% drop out.
So why have we given our students no other option but to pursue a college degree as if this is the only means for personal and financial success? Why do we devalue other life choices?
Looking back on public education, we can see that changes occurred depending on the needs of the economy. Vocational classes were necessary in high schools to prepare students for industries that needed skilled workers.
The 1917 Smith-Hughes Act was the first law to support federal monies for vocational education for careers not requiring a college degree, and where "students in the trades, home economics and the industries were required to spend half their school time in practical hands-on activities." Over time, however, a two-tiered tracking system developed pushing wealthier students toward the academic program and poorer students toward vocational. This created a stigma attached to vocational education as blue collar and “less than.”
Gradually, in many areas of the country, vocational classes were phased out. In 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which meant school districts were now required to report the number of students who went off to college, incentivizing schools to alter their curriculum so courses were specifically aligned with college requirements.
Out went vocational classes, and in went college preparatory classes: English, math, laboratory science, language, visual and performing arts, college preparatory elective, PE/health. Out went federal money for vocational courses, and in went money earmarked for college counselors, college centers, college trips, SAT prep, and the rigorous yet dubious APs.
The ultimate winner of this well-intentioned plan, though, has not necessarily been the students but the College Board — a nonprofit organization that brings in $1.2 billion each year.
Even with this pipeline to college, the reality is that not everyone will go — or wants to go — to college. The reasons are varied. The most obvious is expense.
The average cost of college in the United States is $35,551 per year and the average student debt is $37,584. For many students and families, this can be prohibitive.
Another reason is that the rah-rah college experience that many people are fortunate to have is not the same for all students, many of whom must live at home and go to classes while working a job. This can be a huge stress for an 18-year-old and contributes to the large percentage of first semester dropout rates.
The other factor is that a student who is just squeaking by with a C- with support from teachers and counselors will not necessarily be ready or mature enough to head to college right after high school. Nevertheless, this is the goal high school has prepared the student for.
The world is changing. More companies are hiring people with skill sets rather than a B.A. This is opening opportunities for all students to succeed whether they go to college or not. The high school curriculum needs to adapt, as well.
How is it that economics is taught but financial literacy is not? Students leave high school understanding micro and macroeconomics but don’t know how to open a checking account or what interest rates are or how to budget. How is it that two to three years of a language is necessary to graduate but coding and computer classes are not? And everyone could benefit from a car mechanics class, whether going off to college or not.
Although college can be a life changing experience, it should not be the only choice. High Schools need to make changes in the curriculum to accommodate all students, not only those heading off to college. The educational standards need to be updated to recognize the variety of students' interests and abilities as well as the changing dynamics of the workforce.
There are many paths toward a healthy and prosperous life. Our job as educators should not simply be to get students to college, but to prepare them to be confident members of society and to help them understand the variety of options and skills needed to achieve financial and personal success. If we can do that, then we deserve an A+.