Is a single-minded focus on "college for all" the enemy?

I've been traveling a bunch the past few weeks, making it harder to blog. (Though there's always time to tweet!) So I'm a little late to the party on the recent report from Complete College America, Time is the Enemy. As the press and many pundits have relayed, CCA finds the college completion rate to be shockingly low, especially for poor and minority students. For example, less than half of Pell-eligible students pursuing a four-year degree graduate within six years. For part-time Pell students, it's more like 17 percent. The numbers are similar for African-American and Hispanic students. [quote]

From a reformer's perspective, the reaction to these dispiriting results is obvious: improve academic preparation in the k-12 system in order to reduce enrollment in remedial classes; reduce the amount of time it takes to get a college degree; encourage transferability of credits; etc. And these are all worth doing.

But I can't help but wonder: with so many kids dropping out of college--and especially so many poor kids--should we reconsider our assumption that higher education is the ticket to the middle class? Isn't it possible that lots of these kids would be better off pursuing the trades or (dare I say) the military? If you could figure out a way to do a rigorous study, I'd bet a lot of money that the military has a much better retention rate than higher education for similar young adults--and a much better track record at propelling its "graduates" into middle-class jobs.

Many of us who work in k-12 policy are motivated by the belief that education is the ticket to a better life. Maybe we shouldn't be so sure.

-Mike Petrilli

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