When Suburbanites Start Questioning College

I live in one of those high-achieving school districts that is well known to every selective-college admissions director in the country. With average SAT scores above 1250, a 98 percent graduation rate and 95 percent of graduates attending four-year colleges, my northern New Jersey district boasts excellence.

Parents boast, too. College stickers on the back windshields of BMWs are brag sheets for winning families. Everybody seems to have a kid on the fast track to success, with internships, semesters abroad and academic honors. My husband likes to say that we live in “Magic Town,” because every kid seems perfect.

But on a recent evening in the aging administrative building, the guidance counselors and administrators leading a presentation on “Alternatives to College” took one look at the parents packing the room and ran out to make extra copies of their handouts.

More here.

14 thoughts on “When Suburbanites Start Questioning College

  1. I wish guidance counselors had had this attitude 20 years ago. Two of my children should never have attempted college at 18, and one should never have attempted a standard-issue college at all.


  2. Great article. I’m curious about the specifics and sources of Kirp’s (very alarming) data, especially this: “fewer than half of all middle-class students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in eight years. Even students from the top of the income ladder struggle with completion; only 63 percent graduate in eight years.” Is this from surveys, or financial aid reports, or what? How is he defining “middle class”? And is he including every student who starts any kind of college right after graduation? I always assumed our low grad rate was due to serving students in the lower socioeconomic group, but sounds like it’s plummeting everywhere.


    1. There has been quite a lot of data-gathering and analysis on this issue lately. For example, see:


      Even at the extremely wealthy New Trier High School in suburban Chicago, I’ve heard that only 85% of graduates even enroll in college. I think this speaks to the reality that many teens are very tired of classroom education by the time they are 18, even if they have no financial barriers to college and have received a great secondary education..


      1. The Philanthropy News article says that “the share of those born into the wealthiest quintile completing a college degree jumped from 46 percent to 60 percent” between kids born in the 1970s and kids born in the 1980s. (Wow, this makes me feel old.) I’m wondering how that relates to the 63% in Laura’s article. Is it that the remaining 40% includes 15% who didn’t attempt college and 25% who did and failed to finish? Or is it that 63% of those in the top quintile who start college finish it in 8 years?

        I’m not too surprised that even some well-off people don’t start college. Drug problems, discipline problems, etc. probably account for some, and I would guess others might get going in a family business or in with someone with connections. This could be one of the trades, or computers. Or maybe some of them take a gap year or two and that’s folded into the 15%?


  3. Engineering fields have become very prescriptive. My nieces and nephews had to take English for engineers, sociology for engineers, etc. and it still took 5 years for the program. If you decide you want to be an engineer later, it will take even longer. This is actually very European, in that you move with your cohort through the program. I think it is too bad.


  4. When I took number one up to James Madison for a campus visit, there were a number of young women wearing purple tee shirts which said ‘James Madison English. Going for broke’. I was charmed – I am still kindasorta clinging to the idea that at least part of why you go to college is to become broadly educated.


  5. I think my kid was the only person in her entire graduating high school class who went on to a traditional 4-year college. Everyone else took a break to work, or enrolled in the local 2-year community college. Many of the kids were part of a “youth apprenticeship program” in high school. My daughter worked in a biotech lab for her last two years of high school, and easily could have continued on that path for a bit before attempting higher education.

    She went to an “alternative” high school, where the main guidance message was “there are many paths in life – find the one that works for you – you don’t have to follow the crowd”.

    And while the school did not have any tests or grades or AP classes, I think it prepared her way better for transitioning to college than the traditional HS would have. The focus on project-based work; the emphasis on asking-for-help; the message that failure is part of learning – all of that served her well in her transition.

    So – there are places that have embraced that message. But, in my experience, most upper-middle class families would never send their kid to a high school that didn’t offer any AP classes…..


  6. https://www.multpl.com/case-shiller-home-price-index-inflation-adjusted

    You’ll note that home prices are now roughly equivalent to 2005. That means there has been no price appreciation (with local exceptions) for 14 years. Oh, and $1.00 in 2005 is worth as much as $1.34 in 2005, due to inflation. So inflation has eaten into the purchasing power of home equity.

    Many families buy the house in the “good school district” when their children are in preschool or kindergarten. 3 + 15 = 18. The families facing paying for college now do not have 15 years of house price appreciation to draw upon. Earlier generations of parents did.

    In addition, property taxes are higher in the “good school district,” and of course a more expensive house means larger mortgage costs. That means that even if the purchase price of your house has increased, the running costs to stay in that district could well have eaten into that increase.

    In my opinion, a lot of the financial cushion has disappeared for parents in the last decade or so. Many of the parents are older parents, not starting a family until grad school was done, which means that they’re facing other financial burdens and fears: their own student loan payments, their own looming retirement, and taking care of aging parents.

    So there’s less patience for a child to find him or herself in a liberal arts program. Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed a trend in children majoring in design/art/creative things in college, and then becoming gainfully employed upon graduation. Most of those children have attended design programs, not liberal arts colleges.


    1. Forgot to add: there’s a clear relationship between property tax rates and home prices. The higher the tax, the lower the home price will be, holding the value of the school district constant. Our good-school district house is not as valuable as it was before the recent tax increases. Friends in districts in New Jersey and New York report eye-watering tax rates, which definitely depress home values.


    2. You’ll note that home prices are now roughly equivalent to 2005. That means there has been no price appreciation (with local exceptions) for 14 years. Oh, and $1.00 in 2005 is worth as much as $1.34 in 2005, due to inflation. So inflation has eaten into the purchasing power of home equity.

      Choosing 2005 is a blatant cherry pick of the stats. Choos 2002 or 2008 and your analysis looks pretty different. Also, the stats you chose are inflation adjusted, so for the purpose of you analysis $1.00 is $1.00.

      Not that I am denying that whiny top decile income households feel put upon, but I object to poor use of stats to make arguments…


  7. The point of this article was that college isn’t working out for a lot of kids, not just lower income, first generation kids. Even middle class and wealthy kids are struggling. And their families want alternatives.

    We do need better trade schools. Community colleges still have too many academic requirements. Trade schools have been shut down, because of regulations and because many weren’t run well. I’ve been looking for programs for Ian which would give him the credentials in computers, but wouldn’t hold him up with his reading disability. It’s very, very hard to find programs like that.

    And, of course, not only do we need more and better quality job training programs, but those careers need to be paid a living salary.


  8. The make me smart podcast did a bit on whether college was right. They interviewed Maura Reynolds, Politico, who was involved in their Agenda project, Ladders to Success: https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2019/01/16/education-policy-solutions-000866

    One point Reynolds made is one that I think is important, that trade schools/tech training should be done by the employer, who know what they need. She also pointed out how much on the job training should occur, rather than using a college education as a stand in.

    At the end, they asked Reynolds what her son was doing — and, he wasn’t going to college and had a job.


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