College for all! Please!

I stewed most of the week about how to respond to Deborah Meier's recent Bridging Differences post on ?college for all.?? She's against it, of course. She thinks the movement is another piece of the right-wing, high-stakes testing, corporate behemoth conspiracy.? And I had a high-brow response almost ready to go (see College for All, Please! Part 2, coming soon) ? until yesterday morning, when I picked up my New York Times and read (in the new ?Sunday Review? section) David Leonhardt's masterful KO of the silly notion that we shouldn't encourage kids to go to college: Even for Cashiers, College Pays Off. As Whitney Tilson would say Stop the Presses!!!? ?The graphics alone (compiled from the Center on Education and the Work Force at Georgetown) should take your breath away:

  • A dishwasher with a college degree earns 83% more than a dishwasher with no college
  • A cashier with a college degree, 56% more
  • A plumber, 39%

Etcetera.

Writes Leonhardt:

The most unfortunate part of the case against college is that it encourages children, parents and schools to aim low.

Why should we even be arguing about this?

Leonhardt quotes David Autor, an M.I.T. economist, saying rather bluntly, ?Sending more young Americans to college is not a panacea?. Not sending them to college would be a disaster.?

Unfortunately, that disaster, aided and abetted by smart people like Deborah Meier, is already upon us.? (Full disclosure:? Ms. Meier is a somewhat neighbor of mine and we share some Hyde Park (Chicago) memories, if from different times.? We once lunched together, quite agreeably, in part most likely because we didn't talk a lot about education.) How prevalent is the notion that college ain't such a big deal?

A couple of years ago I surveyed a group of parents and teachers in a school district not far from the one that Meier's grandkids attend, and one of the questions I posed? was, ??Should the goal of our K-12 school district be to make kids smart enough to go to college??? There was a unanimous and resounding NO.? To say I was stunned is an understatement -- these were? folks who cared enough to join a group that was going to improve our district! As we discussed the question further, it turns out that the word ?smart? bothered everyone.? ?There was much palaver about ?preparing kids for life? and making them ?critical thinkers" -- my? own critical thinking suggested an answer to the question of why the district ranked near the bottom of academic rankings--and finally, in frustration, I blurted, ?Wouldn't it be nice if your plumber could quote Shakespeare??? ?No!? said the retired math teacher ? and he wasn't joking.? (See "plumber," above.)

America's anti-intellectualism is nothing new, of course.? But I'm not so sure it has ever been so deeply imbedded in the school system.? The fact that respected educators like Deborah Meier are singing Luddite songs -- in chorus with teachers and parents -- nearly two decades after A Nation at Risk is scary.

I'll let Leonhardt have the last words:

I don't doubt that the [college for all] skeptics are well meaning. But, in the end, their case against college is an elitist one?for me and not for thee. And that's rarely good advice.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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