Is College for You?

Why we can't afford to waste time on this question.

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By this time of year, most students have ended their semester of fretting about whether they will or will not be accepted to this or that college. They have spent the past few months greeting the mailbox with a mixture of fear and hope. Those who received disappointing responses may now be joining the ranks of those who did not apply at all in asking themselves, "Is college for me?"

Friends often argue to me that "the numbers" answer the question. In the United States, only 28 percent of Americans hold a bachelor's degree and only 17 percent of blacks hold one. So it's clear, people reason, that college is not for everyone. Those who subscribe to that view also remind me that the average student comes out of college $20,000 in the hole with student debt. While I can't dismiss these statistics, I think they paint a far too pessimistic and limited portrait. No, not every college is for everyone. But I do believe that there is a college for everyone. Black people's progress in society depends on our participation in the educational system beyond high school. Any argument that suggests otherwise undermines our collective advancement.

For African Americans, the stakes of attending college are higher than those for our white counterparts, largely due to resources. Because black folks have lower average household incomes and lower average amounts of prior education, figuring out if college is a necessity rather than a luxury is a common dilemma. But this is not a new dilemma; over a century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington debated the types of schools that blacks should attend (which they never came to agreement on), but in the end both agreed that college was a necessity for the progress of black people in the United States. While resources are limited for the average African-American family, the benefits of continued educational pursuit are individual and collective.

In the past few years, I've had an opportunity to visit a number of high schools heavily populated with a black and brown children. When I present on the prospects of college and the future, inevitably a student or two will comment, "Well, you know, college isn't for everyone." I often respond, "Well, you have to try it to know if it is for you or not."

While it makes sense to me that adolescents will question which path their lives should take, it is telling that in many of our schools, children are bred to believe that continued education may not get them what they want. In part, that may be due to the fact that many African Americans who complete college no longer reside in the neighborhoods from which they came, leading to declines in role models for children who remain in the inner city.

But that is only part of the story. Most research suggests that on average black children have higher educational aspirations than white children. This is surprising to many, but in reality these aspirations aren't typically followed up by behaviors or experiences that will lead to college attendance. The gap between hopes and practices can be mended by producing high schools that prepare children not just to complete school, but that also put them on the path of further learning, whether they want to be a mechanic or a mathematician. One of the single best things local and state school systems can do is to see their job as not just kindergarten to 12th grade, but kindergarten to 16th grade.

About a year and half ago, I was in a conversation with a 17-year-old about college, and she said to me, "My aunt has a master's degree, and she delivers pizza for Domino's. What's that say about going to college?" I hesitated for a minute and responded, "No offense, but it doesn't tell me much about college, but it tells me a lot about your aunt." While I am sure there are some grocery baggers with Ph.D.s and there are engineers-turned-janitors, in the long run, most people who attend college, of some sort, get better access to jobs, housing and other things that are central to getting ahead in America. We know that continued education beyond high school strongly increases income, is related to better health and improves the chances of being employed. Now this doesn't mean that everyone will experience the same successes, but that's because college is a gateway to opportunity; it's not an "ace in the hole," a guaranteed fix or a magic bullet. My college students are often disheartened when I remind them that college promises nothing, but it does provide a chance for them to demonstrate that they are driven, skilled and willing to learn. To be fair, all these characteristics can be conveyed without a higher education, but the words "bachelor's degree" on a résumé say it quickly, concisely and clearly.

While manufacturing and service industry jobs fostered a boom in the black middle class between the 1960s and 1980s, similar opportunities in those industries have largely dried up. Cities like Detroit demonstrate that the jobs of yesterday have disappeared and that the ones that take their place will be different. As cities attempt to attract companies back, the new jobs created require higher educational attainment.

There are more postsecondary educational options available now than at any other point in history. Some are private, some are state-run, and some are for profit, but all are potential paths to advancement. Education has been one of the key tools used for black economic, social and political advancement from Reconstruction through the civil rights movement. Turning our back on education is like turning our back on our history of collective struggle. Black people, in particular, need to keep pace with changing local and international economies as well as push for social and political rights.

So let's stop asking, "Is college for me?" and start getting serious about figuring out, "Which college is for me?"