Should Fewer Students Go to College?

Experts debate New York City mayor's controversial comment that some should pursue plumbing instead of a degree.

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This perspective is shared by Scott Kemp, the director of a landmark program, Virginia’s Community Colleges High School Career Coaches, that provides career coaches for high school students. Coaches begin meeting with some students in their freshman year and others in their sophomore or junior year and work with the students to identify what they enjoy doing, what they are good at and what their long-term goals are. They then inform the students of the employment prospects in the communities they are considering living in, both in the short and the long term, and based on that information help students formulate an educational and career plan.

“Rather than force kids to four-year colleges where they may not be ready, we look at it as a step-by-step approach,” Kemp said. “A student may want a career that requires a bachelor’s degree, but they may not be immediately ready.” He went on to explain that if a student is pushed into a four-year institution before being ready and drops out, it is a loss for everyone, particularly that student, which is why the program eschews a one-size-fits-all method.

“We call it a career-pathways approach. The idea is not four-year college for everyone. It’s a tailored approach for the student with what works best for where they are and what they want to do. So it could be that trade school, apprenticeship, two-year or four-year degree.”

The program exists in half of the public high schools in Virginia and has expanded to other states, including Louisiana, Alabama, California and Wisconsin. There are efforts to introduce the program even earlier, to students in junior high, though critics have questioned whether adult goals should be placed on middle school students.

According to a report, millennials — those born after 1981 — value money and fame more than previous generations. When asked if concerns about image steer more young people toward costly college degrees and away from potentially higher-paying blue-collar professions, Kemp noted that often parents set the tone for what young people value. If parents hold a college degree, they may strongly influence their kids to do the same. Sometimes, if parents always aspired to pursue higher education but couldn’t, they may be hesitant to see a son or daughter miss out on a degree as well, despite the cost.

Kemp referenced a cartoon he recently received from a colleague that depicted someone saying they chose going to university over a two-year apprenticeship so that they would have a nice diploma hanging in Mom and Dad’s basement — the point being that despite having a fancy degree, the student could only afford to live at home. Seeming to echo Bloomberg’s point, Kemp elaborated that if a student graduates from the University of Virginia with a philosophy degree, he may end up working at Starbucks after graduation, whereas if a student trains to become an automotive technician, he may end up earning higher than the national average in his first year of employment.

When asked specifically about Bloomberg’s comments, Kemp said, “I don’t agree that every kid should go to college.” But, he added, “I believe college should be an opportunity for every student.”

One expert vehemently disagreed, however, with Bloomberg’s thesis. Juan Gilbert, a computer scientist, whose software Applications Quest is used by college-admissions officers seeking diverse student bodies, said, “I don’t think the solution is to reduce the number of students going to college. I think it’s the opposite. We need more students in areas of national need. I do recognize we need strategies to address the rising cost of college and the severe amount of debt that students are generating.”

Gilbert went on to note that our country is facing a desperate shortage of students educated in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). When asked if too many students were being steered to college unnecessarily, he replied, “Ask Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Facebook, Google, etc. I believe the answer is a unanimous ‘no.’ “

Keli Goff is The Roots special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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