Actually, Mr. President, College Isn’t for Everyone

In his State of the Union, Obama talked up college education as a plus for all children. But not everyone should get a degree.

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President Barack Obama delivers his fifth State of the Union on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Jan. 28, 2014.

Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images

President Barack Obama’s most recent State of the Union address has been widely praised as one of his best ever—with even conservative critics like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich calling it “powerful.” It’s pretty much beyond dispute at this point that the president knows what he’s doing when he takes the podium.

But with all due respect to President Obama, one part of his address missed the mark Tuesday night, and the result could prove particularly problematic for men and women of color. Touting the importance of higher education, he said:

Taking a page from that playbook, the White House just organized a College Opportunity Summit, where already 150 universities, businesses, nonprofits have made concrete commitments to reduce inequality in access to higher education and to help every hardworking kid go to college and succeed when they get to campus.

But the ambitious goal he lays out overlooks one glaring reality: Not every hardworking kid wants to go college, needs to go to college or is cut out for college. And it’s time we stopped telling every family that their kids probably are.

Student-loan debt is consigning many college grads to a lifetime spent as a member of the working poor. But the effect of that debt has been even more pronounced in the black community. Black students are more likely than any other group to carry student-loan debt and to carry a higher balance of student-loan debt.

According to CBS News, “Hispanics and African Americans are about twice as likely to carry student-loan debt: 34 percent of blacks and 28 percent of Hispanics have it, compared with 16 percent of whites and 19 percent Asians.” The College Board, meanwhile, found that “[o]nly 19 percent of black students graduated with no debt, while the percentage of debt-free graduates from other racial groups ranged from 33 for Hispanic students to 40 percent for Asian students. About 27 percent of all black students graduated with at least $30,500 in student-loan debt, while the portion of students with that level of debt ranged from 9 percent to 16 percent for other races.”

Putting in context just why pursuing college can end up resulting in a step down the economic ladder, as opposed to a step up, is the fact that a high number of students who take on debt to pay for college never actually finish their degrees. Some reports put the number as high as 30 percent. Within that group, there are those who may have become too overwhelmed by the economic demands of financing their education. But others may have been overwhelmed by the academic demands, while others may have begun working at a job that didn’t require a college degree, and decided to leave college to pursue that career trajectory instead.

The bottom line is that college is not for everybody. I know plenty of brilliant people who don’t have college degrees, and some successful ones, too—and I’m not just speaking of athletes and entertainers. Media moguls Barry Diller and Richard Branson are two of the most successful businessmen in the world, and neither attended college. Branson struggled with a learning disability that would not have made most college settings a good fit for him. Inspired by the success of many who have made it without degrees, billionaire Peter Thiel recently gave $100,000 scholarships to 24 college-age individuals to forgo college and start a business.

To be clear, nearly everyone needs skills and qualifications to succeed, just not necessarily the kind that are acquired on campus. Let’s face it: Not everyone has what it takes to become the next Richard Branson, but there are plenty of people without college degrees who have great trade jobs and who make a comfortable living—making more money, in plenty of instances, than those of us with fancy degrees.

Obama has a powerful platform with which to reach parents who may be nudging their children to go to college who may not really belong there but who might be better off learning a trade. And he also has a powerful platform with which to reach employers. Too many companies now demand college degrees for positions that don’t really require them and never needed them before. Administrative-assistant positions, for instance, used to require only secretarial school. Thanks in part to the steering of all ambitious students to college, secretarial schools are becoming a thing of the past, with many higher-end businesses today expecting those answering their phones—and making lower wages—to also have a four-year degree.