Imagine a castle with very high ramparts. Ramparts that grow higher every day. In the castle are suburban homes, good schools, doctors for sick children, 401K plans to protect the elderly. On the vast fields surrounding the castle are McDonalds jobs, over priced health clinics, crumbling schools with exhausted and poorly trained teachers.
There’s a siege. Commanders, with good intensions and few resources, are sending their soldiers against the walls. Some march to their doom. Others are flung on catapults or try to scale the walls with ladders. A few make it over the walls, but the majority lay dead on the field.
Right now, the best chance that most kids have to achieve that American Dream is to finish college and earn a BA. The statistics are clear. People with a college degree have greater lifetime earnings and more opportunities for good jobs than those who don’t have that degree. Workers without a college degree have been displaced by technology and global markets.
By now, all know that. So, education leaders and activists have told students that they must attend college. Students have been given sermons and lectures that they can do it. They’ve been empowered and enlightened. But they haven’t been given the weapons and tools to make it through the battle. The dropout rate is huge, particular for low income, poor students.
Because to get through college degree requires years of training. Students need hard skills — math facts, essay composition, knowledge of science and history — but most can’t pass basic standardized tests for math or reading. They need soft skills – how to organize tasks, study independently, plan for the future. They need to understand the complicated bureaucratic structures of colleges and other college hacks — where do you go when you financial aid check doesn’t come in, how do you create a balanced course schedule, what’s a bursor’s office.
Meanwhile, it’s much harder to finish college these days. Standards are higher, particularly for the STEM classes. A student with a simple college prep high school class in biology will sit in a lecture hall next to a student who took honors biology in his Freshman year of high school, took AP biology in his senior year, studied with a tutor for the Biology SATs, and may have attended a STEM camp at the local community college. They will be given the same final exam, and the kid with all that experience will set the curve. The regular student has no chance.
And students are further away from adults – adults with full time positions – than ever before. They are hurded into massive state colleges with tens of thousands of students. They attend lectures with hundreds of students, where the only person who can answer questions is a temporary worker who has no incentive to answer emails and is struggling financially herself.
The bureaucracies at these schools are Kafkaesque, unable to handle glitches in the system. The glitches are kids, who fail out of that biology class, who have trouble paying a bill, who can’t find those majors that shelter the less educated students.
The bodycounts are high. 84 percent of low income kids drop out of college. They stagger away from the schools, depressed and battered. They blame themselves, their families, and their communities for not preparing them. They are saddled with debt and no degree. They come back home and tell others to stay away. We have to wonder whether it was fair to send them to the battle with so little preparation. We have to assume some of the guilt for the wreckage.
And we have to work to change the system. K-12 schools need to prepare al kids for college in all ways from the hard skills to knowledge of the job markets to the basic college hacks. But without a major infusion of cash, that isn’t going to happen. In some states, there is 1 guidance counselor for every 700 kids. [edited] Test scores haven’t budged in decades.
Some say that the solution is for kids to bypass high schools and start sending kids to the local community college for high school classes (a growing trend). Others say that we need to boost community colleges and technical schools that can prepare kids for real jobs that don’t require a BA. Some high school charter schools are now following students into college to support them.
The conversation is starting to go beyond “free college” and “abolish student loans,” because it’s becoming clear that money, or the lack thereof, is only one small problem in this system. Political leaders haven’t caught up yet. It’s the job of writers and thought leaders to get them up to speed and to do something about the walking wounded, the students who have been chewed up by the system.