Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Public Opinion About College Has Changed. Yours Shouldn’t.

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It was only a matter of time.
A recent article in The Washington Post reports that most Americans do not believe a college education is very important.  The PDK- Gallup Poll indicates only 44 percent of Americans now feel a college education matters, down from 79 percent just four years ago.  In other words, students who are now college seniors started life after high school with a country that largely thought they were doing something noble by going to college, but now, not so much.

The article goes on to indicate a generally less supportive tone of education in general (greater disapproval for Common Core, a belief new teachers should spend a full year with an experienced teacher), but both the article and the poll overlook an important question—why has public support for college dropped so much so quickly?  Some of the possible reasons are important for school counselors to consider, as they continue to advise students on postsecondary plans that will shape their careers, their lives, and their lifestyles:

Four year college degrees were oversold for years.  
The Great Recession left many students of middle class families scrambling for new career options, as the factories that offered good union wages for high school graduates downsized or went out of business in droves.  Looking at the high wages earned by workers with a Bachelors Degree, desperate families and policy makers placed an emphasis on going to college that was based more on the needs of the country than the needs of the individual student.  Much of that bad advice has led to high dropout rates—clearly not what was hoped for.

New college graduates can’t find jobs in their field.  It wasn’t just the factories downsizing in 2007, as the white collar managers of those plants and their suppliers also lost their jobs.  This led to a decrease in entry level jobs for those just completing colleges, driving many of them to become the best educated baristas around.  It isn’t hard to understand why an average high school student would look at that and decide college isn’t for them—especially since…

The cost of college skyrocketed.  College tuition has been on a steep upward climb for years, but every price hike in the last few years has received greater attention, once cumulative debt for college students surpassed the hefty watermark of $1 billion.  A high priced product (college) that could no longer promise high benefits (a good job) is a strong reason for consumers (students) to look elsewhere to spend their postsecondary dollars—like community colleges and training programs, where some technology jobs start graduates out at the very reasonable rate of $40,000 per year.

Four year colleges may be looking at some kind of correction, but counselors will have to keep a close eye on the “college isn’t worth it” movement to make sure students don’t overlook all college has to offer.  This can best be done by remembering the mistake society made in deciding that college was the “one size fits all” solution to the Great Recession.  It wasn’t—just as putting every student through technical training isn’t the answer to the challenges we’re facing now.

A carefully designed college counseling curriculum will help students understand the different kinds of colleges and the purpose each kind has—as well as key factors in deciding if college is for you.  It’s long past time for students and counselors to let public sentiment decide our students’ futures.  We know better, and it’s our job to teach our students better, no matter which way the winds of public opinion blow. 

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