What Happens to Kids Who Don’t Go to College? (Newsletter)

Excerpt from newsletter. Subscribe here.

As the world was caught up in one of the most memorable and significant elections in my lifetime, Steve, Ian, and I were tangled in our own private drama. But, as it is so often, the personal is political, so let me share our story.

While the nation’s votes for president were still being counted, the three of us loaded up in the new Subaru at 6:15 am with cups of coffee and egg sandwiches from Paramus Bagels on Route 17. We drove up to New Haven, CT to meet with Yale’s Child Study Team for a two-day evaluation. The $6,000 price may or may not be covered by our insurance, despite days of paperwork hell. 

We first visited them four years ago, after I interviewed a member of the team for an article for The Atlantic about Sesame Street’s autism initiative, and she suggested that we bring Ian up to them for an evaluation. At that point, Ian was a student at the local middle school, where he was shut up in a room with other misfit kids. He was miserable and wasn’t learning anything.

Yale provided us with a report that showed that he was very smart, and therefore should be actually educated – crazy that we needed a report to say that, but that’s how the world works. In the end, the report helped us get him placed in another public school that was a whole lot nicer to special ed kids. 

He thrived in the new setting, working his way out of most of his special ed classes into mainstream ones. He marched on the football field banging on snare and bass drums as part of the marching band. And, most importantly, he was very happy. But this is senior year, and we have no idea what his next step should be.

Middle class kids with typically developing developmental systems have a clear path ahead of them. They go to a four-year college, get a degree in something, get a job, and move on with adulthood. Now, some kids take slightly different routes to that middle class adulthood, but the paths are all clearly marked, with large billboards and staff to usher kids to that end goal. Barring some serious fuck-ups, the average middle class kid makes it to the finish line. 

The alternative routes have no road signs. As I wrote for the 74 last year, high schools do not have enough guidance counselors. Those that exist are not trained about careers and higher education. And there is no incentive to provide information about non-four year colleges. There is no information about the difference between community colleges and for-profit trade schools, so some kids make very expensive mistakes.  

For kids who have disabilities, the post-high school picture is even more confusing. Legally, schools are supposed to help the parents and students plan for a post-high school life starting when they turn 14, but in reality, they do nothing. When Ian turned 14, an administrator asked Ian what he wanted to do when he grows up. Ian said that he wants to own an indie video game company. That information was duly marked down on a form, without any thought about how a kid with autism was going to make his dream a reality.

Schools are required to educate kids with IEPs until 21, but it’s a grey area. One administrator just told us that since Ian has met all his graduation requirements, they were going to be done with him in June. Another administrator assured me that he would qualify for their 18-21 program. 18-21 programs are highly problematic, but I’ll save that topic for another day.

The Yale people looked him over and said that their findings were very consistent with the previous report. He’s very smart, particularly in non-verbal tasks, but too quirky to blend into a typical community college classroom or workplace. He isn’t baked yet. They do think with the right training that we can get him there, but he needs a lot more support from the school district and private resources. This report will say that he should remain in a public school setting until 21.

The unemployment rate for kids with autism, even high functioning autism like my kid, is abysmal. One study found that only 15% of autistic people with college degrees are gainfully employed. For those who are too high functioning for a day-program, which is basically a baby-sitting service, they end up at home all day without purpose or social interaction. Parents are the permanent caretakers until they die, when the state finally steps in and puts the individual in an institution.

I refuse to accept that future for my kid. So, I’m fighting it with research, expert reports, a book proposal, and the ballot box.

Last Tuesday, I voted for a kinder world that supports all people. Individualism and limited government is all fine and good for some. It is not for us. Our family needs less hostile K-21 schools, greater inclusion in higher education, friendly employment options, social services, and so on. We need a safety net. (I also voted against insanity and incompetence, but that’s another story.)

Going forward, Biden will face two options for education. He can either keep the status quo; one that rewards strong political organizations and ignores those with less political capital. Or he can make bold changes that restructures the system, so that those who aren’t on the four-year college path — which includes tons of typical kids, as well as my disabled peeps — have good options for their future.

I vote for bold change. 

27 thoughts on “What Happens to Kids Who Don’t Go to College? (Newsletter)

  1. I am wondering what bold change means. I’m not a bold thinker on education, not the least because education has worked for my family. My id is currently in public school, in an affluent but urban district and has had a well run school and good teachers. Even now, in the middle of the pandemic and school closures that is true, for my kid & his school.

    I have problems with decisions made at the district level — though I am starting to see some signs of plotting paths forward on opening schools at the public health level. Unfortunately we are solidly into a 3rd wave of covid where rates are increasing which makes the analysis done assuming lower rates and at the least a steady rate. But my thinking about that is not bold, it’s incremental.

    So, what can be done boldly at the federal level?


  2. Biden’s education programs will favor those with strong political organizations and high political capital, assuming they are Democratic partisans. That means, first and foremost, public school teachers and teachers’ unions, and then a few other interest groups, like university administrators. Parents with handicapped children, who aren’t rich, aren’t organized, and often aren’t even Democrats, are not likely to make the list.

    You may invoke the old Vulcan saying, “Only Nixon could go to China,” but Biden just isn’t that kind of independent thinker or actor.


  3. Laura wrote, “I vote for bold change.”

    You’re going to get a teacher’s union president as secretary of education.

    Also, closing the schools for a year technically qualifies as “bold change.”


    1. We’re operating in an environment where 5 days a week of in-person K-12 school would represent “bold change.”


  4. “The richer students’ families were, the more likely they were to finish college: among students from families making $150,000 or more per year (the top 6 percent, by income), the graduation rate for college-going students was a very healthy 80 percent. And for all students, not just those who go to college, it’s over 60 percent. That’s much, much higher than the 25-percent completion rate for students from the lowest income quartile.”

    That’s from the Urban Institute, and based on data from the US Department of Education. Yes, it shocked me too, not just the very low completion rate for the lowest quartile, but also the very anemic attendance and completion rate for upper-income students. 60% is not great for students who presumably have all the advantages.

    What that indicates, to me, is that college is not serving whole swaths of students well. There should be a huge constituency of parents/students who resist the idea of killing themselves to attain a 4-year degree when that outcome is not a whole lot more likely than 50-50 for the rich, and much worse for everyone else. There should be allies for parents whose children have disabilities, from among the rest.


    1. Let us note that $150,000 is much less than the household income of an electrician and a legal secretary, at least in NYC, neither of whom necessarily has a college degree. Some of those students from families in those circumstances give college a try, decide that higher education and the white collar life to which it leads are not for them, and fall back to their parents’ trades, which is fine.


      1. Glassdoor says that the average salary for a legal secretary in NYC is $54,276 per year. And my friend’s husband is an electrician in NYC and makes around $100-110K per year as a union electrician. So, $150K is hardly “much less.”


      2. Totally agree. Also, if you look at the extensive data comparing those with a 4-year degree to those without, there’s a massive difference in lifetime income.


      3. Someone who hires legal secretaries on a regular basis is a more reliable source than glassdoor. But, in fairness, it may take a woman 10 or 20 years to reach the low 100s level: precisely the age at which her children would be starting college. I presume that electricians’ incomes show the same gradient, though I know much less about that, except that many secretaries are married to men in skilled blue collar trades, and it would be surprising if they married men who made a lot less than they.

        I have no idea whether the economy will continue to create jobs for the kind of women–bright, but not academically inclined–who become legal secretaries. That might be why so many of them voted for Trump. Staten Island, Bensonhurst, etc. are bright red on the map this year.


      4. Fun fact. My mom was a bilingual legal secretary in Manhattan for a while. French. She grew up in Calgary. Then she got her BA at Hunter, while working two part time jobs, because my asshole grandfather charged her rent and yelled at her saying all women who go to college were sluts. After she had me and finished her BA, she never went back to work. It’s too bad. She’s still super smart.


      5. BLS charts indicate that both legal secretaries and electricians’ median income nationwide is about $56,000. NYC is a bubble in terms of compensation. I agree that if the children of this couple ( which has an above-average but not princely income) can see a clear way to a non-college but comfortable career, they are likely to take it. But these careers have risks, as well. Some (like legal secretaries) are being automated away. Non-union electricians (the majority) don’t make high wages. And so forth.

        But I think we expect more of our educational system than any such system can provide.


  5. Bold plans? I want to burn it all down and start all over again.

    I don’t want my tax money going to a variety football team, AP classes, business clubs, debate teams, when they can’t even provide us with a guidance counselor, when they literally educate kids like mine in the basement, when I have to pay thousands of dollars every month to supplement my kid’s education, because his teachers are less qualified than other teachers.

    And yes, I do feel a great deal of solidarity with lower income families and all the kids who struggle to finish college, because their high school educations were too crappy to prepare them to finish college. So, I do not want my tax money going towards subsidized student loans, public four-year colleges, public two-year colleges, massive subsidizes for private colleges and so on, until kids like mine and lower-income kids benefit equally from the system.

    I am done, done, done.

    It highly likely that Biden will support a teachers’ union person, but I do hope he appoints someone with bigger plans for education.


  6. I actually think it unlikely that Biden will (or could) pick a high profile teacher’s union person. What’s the likelihood of a McConnell senate confirming a Randi Weingarten? And although I have Georgia dreams, I am a realist.

    But, I’m pretty sure that as a group, Biden supporters don’t want to burn public education down and start again. Republicans sometimes seem to want to, but I suspect not to wait until kids who are being poorly served currently benefit equally from the system.

    As I said, I’m an incrementalist. An incrementalist ideas I can get behind is to fix the unfunded mandate of special needs by funding it. There *could* potentially be a bi-partisan effort, no?


  7. Laura, I think you are going to be the education innovator you are looking for. In 10 years you’re going to be the expert on moving young adults like Ian into jobs and lives where they can flourish. Our college used to have a great disability resource center (then it got cut, and our two amazing counselors fled to the public school system anticipating more cuts). It was focused on getting students through their classes, with different kinds of accommodations, but these counselors could have done so much more. Maybe community colleges and state universities could ramp up their guidance counseling geared to students with a whole assortment of disabilities. You could figure out how to create a job like that, and then get yourself trained for it.


  8. I think it’s kind of funny how we keep finding jobs for Laura to do. Ones that require a lot of investment and effort on her part that might pay off for her, but maybe not. I, for example, keep suggesting running for office. They’d all make the world a better place, but . . . .

    I think she’s keeping herself pretty busy and just appreciate that she takes the time to write the fairly regular blog posts.


    1. Ha. Yes, I am very busy. I’m working on a book proposal right now. I’m trying to keep the hobbies and dumb mom chores non-work hours (9-5). Which is why I am only getting started at this blog at 8:26pm.

      I do sometimes think about running for public office. I really enjoy public speaking and am a frequent speaker at board of ed meetings. But I think I am a writer. Whether or not it actually leads to proper paychecks is sort of irrelevant at this point. This is what I do.


  9. I also wonder, what happens to kids who DO go to college? I’m in Massachusetts. My autistic kid did get through public university, dean’s list, degree. There’s a ton of support in higher education for kids who can handle classes and academics at a certain level. He’s living independently – but he’s earning minimum wage and is frustrated as hell he can’t find a job that pays better. Same with most of his peers.

    Meanwhile, I also have some professional visibility into community college kids – specifically first and second generation immigrants who know that education is the key but don’t quite know what or where to study. So here they are, working slave-wage jobs for big companies that chews them up and spits them out and going to school at night and studying……criminal justice.

    Honestly, we need vocational education/apprenticeships like Germany’s. And we need to identify which jobs are accessible to people like Ian and my son, who have the capacity to be productive members of society.


    1. “first and second generation immigrants who know that education is the key but don’t quite know what or where to study”–Sad to say, the academic establishment resolutely refuses to supply any assistance on that topic. That is why things like the US News rankings, and various other items of useful guidance, all disdained and contemned by the establishment, are so valuable. Families like Laura’s and mine, with several generations of higher education in hand, and total acculturation to the ways of the UMC, don’t need that sort of advice, but others are not so fortunate.


      1. “Sad to say, the academic establishment resolutely refuses to supply any assistance on that topic.”

        I’ll bite, What do you think the “academic establishment” should do?


  10. Yes, totally agree. This is what I’m researching right now. When I have more answers, I’ll write it all up either here or elsewhere.


  11. Are we sure we’re really talking about education?

    It seems like the problem is more employment than education–but we talk about education because it’s what we are used to talking about and it’s easier to change educational institutions.

    Nora Jaye wrote, “Honestly, we need vocational education/apprenticeships like Germany’s.”

    Do we have an economy that is structured to support that? I’d love to see an analysis of German apprenticeships and what sectors of the economy have them.

    I have this awful feeling that (due to unavailability of high-paying industrial work in much of the US) the US version of this would involve young adults “apprenticing” at Amazon warehouses.

    On a happier note, I have a nephew studying engineering at a German college right now, and he reports that he has a number of classmates who did apprenticeships before starting college, and they are killing it in their engineering program.


    1. Well, if Amazon warehouse jobs paid well and were safe and stable, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. People hang on like crazy to other jobs that are not wonderful, as long as they pay well. Mining, logging, road construction, working on an auto assembly line, etc etc.


  12. The problem is that schools are not preparing their students for the modern workforce. If your kids aren’t on track for a four-year college, they are in serious trouble.

    School administrators have read some books that are, let’s just say it, total fabrications and lies about the modern workforce. Some assholes have made a ton of money with lingo and conjecture. They have told schools that students don’t need to actually learn facts or skills, because everything can be looked up on the Internet. The main thing that schools need to teach kids is how to work as part of a group and be creative thinkers. So, that means teachers can just do a lot of group work with their kids and feel like they’ve done their jobs. All this education theory is total crap and not based on evidence.

    The work world has entirely changed. It’s also bullshit that if kids they’ll learn a skill like plumbing or car mechanics, they’ll have a nice middle class job. So, so, so untrue. First of all, nobody should work for a small electrician or auto body shop, because they do not offer benefits. No health insurance. I would much, much, much rather work for Amazon than the local electrician, just for that reason. Larger employers are also more likely to have certain job protections and HR departments and all that. Small businesses suck.

    Community colleges are supposed to be helping those students, who can’t attend a four-year school, with the skills to get other jobs, but they are so woefully underfunded and mismanaged that they are useless. And community colleges, high schools, and local businesses do not talk to each other.

    Trade schools have a terrible reputation. They are usually for-profit enterprises that care more about taking tuitions the training.

    And while these educational institutions are failing, the work world has gotten much more technical. There are no factory jobs for folks to screw widgets into other widgets. There are no family businesses to find work for the little brother who never learned how to add. Meanwhile the cost of living is going up, so nobody can afford a family by running the local hardware store.

    There’s a reason that folks like Andrew Yang are saying that we should just have a universal basic income. There’s a good chance that large numbers of the American public will never have a job that pays enough for food and housing.

    There’s a good reason that Generation Z is stressed out of their minds.


    1. But, if we massively compressed the income distribution in this country, there would be plenty to go around and low-skill jobs would pay enough. If we also had universal health insurance and reasonably-priced college. But we’re not like the Japanese, we don’t seem to think it’s important to include everyone in the economy. GRRRR.


    2. I think there’s room for experimenting with German style apprenticeship models and that the main obstacle is philosophy. For example, the tech companies in our neck of the woods both invest in and try to leverage their political power to increase the number of slots in our colleges. But, their goal is to make the labor supply as big as possible so that they can keep wages down. They want the colleges to produce a broad number of students with a broad number of fairly specific skills (say, programming in the language/tool of the moment) and then be able to pick from among them as they need. They do this already by hiring from abroad, but they’d like an American labor supply, too, and they’d rather not pay for it.

      But, it seems to me that those companies should pay for what they want, rather than “talking to the schools” for what they might want. If they know what skills they’ll need in 4 years why not pay to train people to acquire those skills and then hire them?


    3. I also think that we have a long term economic issue with how we support labor that doesn’t have a easily measurable output, including large swathes of the service sectors (teaching, mothering, caretaking, nursing, . . . .). Doctors, currently, mitigate the issue by tightly regulating labor supply in the US.

      As we get really committed to quantifying value-added skills (but badly) we create all kinds of incentives for people to pursue one endeavor over another (regardless of their interests) and then we devalue everything else. So, there are workers that are treated like commodities and a growing small group of people who are seen as adding significant value.

      I do not see how such an economy is sustainable with democracy.

      I see a push from some to create an economy where individuals bear all of the risk (i..e gig economy, freelancing, starting small businesses, etc.). That direction is compatible with an rugged American individualism, but, just like everyone isn’t suited to coding, everyone is not suited to bearing and evaluating the risks of running ones own business).


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