Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Testing Our College Assumptions

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Now that we’re at the end of the college application season, it’s time to consider the validity of some ideas that are generally viewed as true.  It isn’t always easy to challenge our deepest assumptions, but since we’ve just spent eight months getting students into colleges to do just that for the next four years, it might be worthwhile to lead by example.  Let’s see what happens.

College Ready and Career Ready Are the Same Thing This idea came around about ten years ago, right after all of America was convinced that “going to college” meant “going to a four-year college.”  When skyrocketing dropout rates and loan default percentages suggested a four year college may not be part of everyone’s destiny, a few educators (largely community college employees) pointed out that many careers requiring little or no college still require advanced math—so college-bound students and career-bound students really need the same set of skills.

The sentiment is understandable, but this statement is simply wrong. America’s rush to send everyone to four-year colleges proves this point; while some had the skills necessary to make the most out of four more years of school, many didn’t—and most of them were really glad to realize that.  They then went on to some other kind of training or experience, including community college (which is college) or an apprenticeship (which isn’t college). Some of this training may have required understanding the importance of sine and cosine, but most required something else that may be easier, or harder; either way, it was different.

Some Colleges Are More Important Than Others  This time of year gives us a chance to remember that  about 3 percent of the colleges in the United States run out of space before they run out of applicants—the rest do not. This is a surprise to many families, since almost all of the media coverage on applying to college focuses on that 3 percent, giving us the impression that getting into any college requires all kinds of packaging, test prepping, and strategy.

If it really is that easy to get into college, why is there so much focus on the few where admission is hard?  Some will say it’s because the competition brings a sense of excitement, while others will tell you the media only covers controversy. A third perspective suggests this handful of schools grabs our attention because these schools are the best at what they do, and what parent (or student) in their right mind doesn’t want the best?

The answer to this question is another question—“best” according to whom?  Students who feel at home in liberal arts colleges with small class sizes may not feel at home at a college with large lectures, but other students would find too little to do or think about at a small leafy school. Some of the top 3 percent may be attractive to a large number of wealthy families, but does that make them more valuable to the rest of us—and if so, why?

We’re still suffering from some sense of elitism about the four-year college experience in this country, where some four-year colleges are viewed as more special than others, and all two-year colleges are viewed as less important than any four-year college. I don’t know how that started, but it’s time for it to stop.  Physicians and plumbers are special, important, and different.  The years each one spent in college doesn’t make their difference more special—it just makes it different.  That’s a reason to be happy, not nervous.

1 comment:

  1. Patrick, as usual, you've hit the proverbial nail a la tete, and your last sentence says it all - kudos!