Can College Be For Everyone?

From the newsletter

Jonah was born, ratherly inconveniently, when Steve and I were still working on our dissertations. We didn’t start saving for Jonah’s college education at that time as the baby books recommended, in part because we were as poor as dirt. Our spare nickels and dimes were not going to make a dent in $70,000 of college expenses. 

We also didn’t save for college for the kids twenty years ago, because we felt that there was a 50/50 chance that higher education was not going to exist much longer. After more than a decade in the trenches of academia, as students, researchers, and as professors, we knew that the system was on a shaky foundation. But colleges still exist, so the laugh was on us when we had to quickly assemble a large pile of cash to send Jonah to college. 

Most high school graduates — 66 percent in 2019 — go straight to a two-year or four-year college. While many start college, finishing college proves to be difficult for many; nearly 40 percent of those college attenders do not graduate even after six years at a school. Overall, only a minority of Americans, 25 years or older —  32 percent — have a four-year college degree. 

The numbers don’t lie. Getting a bachelor’s degree in a timely manner continues to be a struggle for most young people. And with a declining investment in education and recent shocks to society, we are not going to see swelling numbers in lecture halls, at pledge night at Phi Gamma Delta’s frat house, or even on the local bus to community college. But that doesn’t mean that Steve and I were right twenty years ago. The truth is that higher education is morphing and changing; college might not resemble our experiences of liberal arts majors, grassy campuses, and kegs in dorm rooms, but it’s not going anywhere.

The options for disabled adults are exploding. I’ve written several newsletter posts chronicling my experiences trying to find a place for my son with high functioning autism. (We visited another promising program in Connecticut yesterday.) 

As part of my research for my son, I discovered a host of brand new programs for disabled students in the Northeast. Students with intellectual disabilities can now live in supported dorms on campuses and learn jobs skills in college dining halls and libraries. There are programs with students, like Ian who have higher functioning autism, and need support with organizing their work and making friends, but can handle the classes. Some of these programs rely on huge tuition payments from parents, but others are flush with new cash from the state and feds and are practically free for parents. 

Those who can manage four-year colleges are finding new practical options. Because students fear racking up lots of debt for majors that aren’t clearly tied to a post-graduation job, humanities majors are going the way of the dinosaur. According to the Hechinger Report, in recent years, “more and more students turned away from the humanities and opted to major in engineering, health and other career-oriented fields.” And colleges are responding. Jonah’s girlfriend is a HR major. Unlike Jonah the political science major, she knows exactly what she’ll be doing the week after graduation. 

While community colleges are struggling and weren’t nimble enough to deal with the pressure from the pandemic — enrollment in two-year colleges is down 10 percent nation-wide — new career and technical programs are opening up. Highly problematicfor-profit colleges have dominated this sphere for many years. Community colleges, with their on-going identify crisis and history of bad decisions, haven’t been able to meet the need for high school graduates to get the skills to fix cars, repair laptops, code medical paperwork, and organize the social media for small businesses. So, publicly funded career and technical high schools and specialized programs within four-year colleges are opening up. At one local college, you can get learn about the craft brew industry or medical coding without having to waste time taking classes you hate. 

College isn’t for everyone, you hear people say. While traditional college may not be everyone, perhaps these new models of higher education can be for everyone. They can provide an education in trade or life skills to help bridge high school with the demands of the real world. 

The next step is for high schools to understand this complex new world and to education students and families about all the new options. High school counselors need to catch up quickly. As I wrote last year, counselors are few in number; some states have 1 for every 600 students. They are trained to help kids with their social-emotional needs, not college and career planning. There are no incentives for them to provide information to kids about alternatives for four year programs, because their schools rankings are based on graduates’ attendance at 4-year colleges. But this “college or bust” model is out-dated and not serving students. 

I am actually very excited about all the opportunities for young people. While I may have loved everything about traditional college — dorms, Plato, late night debates with roommates, senior projects, art classes, advance political theory — I also know that I’m an outlier. Most people don’t want or need all that. As the higher education market FINALLY responds to new demands, I hope that we can steer students in the right directions without jargon, without politics, and without a huge price tag.

38 thoughts on “Can College Be For Everyone?

    1. Yes. It’s on my radar. Not sure if it is the right place for Ian, who needs a tech degree + life skills + social skills. Landmark is more for traditional liberal arts major and doesn’t do enough with life and social skills. But it’s definitely a possibility. I just got off the phone from one program that costs $100K per year, and it doesn’t take 529 money. You can’t use government disability money or student loans. So, it would $100K out of pocket, unless you can convince a school district to cover it. Crazy town.


      1. Hmh, interesting, schools that aren’t eligible institution for 529 funds. I do wonder about institutions like that — do they really get money from school districts, or do they just vaguely state the possibility? Are they mostly for well off people (who, I imagine, are paying 80K for their other kids’ college experiences)? and then there is the fear of the smattering who can’t afford it, but try anyway (NYU is in the news again for their model, which seems to be just that, in a WSJ article on its unaffordability for some of its students).

        Younger kiddo just got into his early school and now we are moving past the personal and thinking about colleges and where they sit in economic spectrum. He is pleased that his school has a lower percent of 1% than his sister’s school and than other schools in its class and has been trying to understand why.


      2. I would be *really* wary of any institution that is ineligible for 529 reimbursement. Given that you can spend 529 money pretty much anywhere there has to be something seriously wrong there.


      3. You can’t spend 529 money anywhere. The places that I’m looking at are private programs that teach life skills, social skills, higher ed support, and job training. It’s not covered by health insurance or 529. The government doesn’t recognize them as a higher ed institution, so students can’t get student loans. It’s a problem. There is simply no other place for kids like mine.


  1. Optimism is good. I agree that the traditional free form college degree, liberal arts, or what I would call liberal science (i.e. non career directed) is not right for everyone. But, I do always worry when I say “not for everyone” but know that it is precisely for my family and kids.

    Kiddo, who definitely does not know exactly what she wants to do after college, might have, in a very privileged, academic, entitled way said something along the lines of the best work is getting a fellowship where they give you money but then don’t require you to do anything. Indeed, she had gotten the benefit of just such a fellowship from a rich donor at the school last summer. Yes, she did indeed do lots of work, but, no one made her do it. I did roll my eyes and she was joking, but yes, a job like that would be pretty nice. And, a very small number of winners in academics get it.

    So I continue to worry when we tell less entitled kids that they can’t have the the opportunity to even try. I think a valid solution, though, would be more on ramps at different times. Right now, everyone goes to college right after school because there doesn’t seem to be anything else and the system is set up to support them making that choice then, but not later.


    1. Or maybe we should stop supporting expensive, elitist colleges with preferential their tax status and student loans, and give all that money/attention to programs that educate (and educate in the broadest sense of that word) the most students after high school. Of course, less entitle kids should the same opportunities as your kids. But kids are in more need of a broad array of options, post high school.


      1. I’m not sure taxing endowments will have the effect that you think it will. It could well make these elitist institutions even *more* elitist.

        Right now Harvard is pretty much free to attend for a family income well into the six figures. And their financial aid package is loan-free. They could easily, with their endowment, make the cost of attendance zero for all undergraduates and they don’t only for the reason that they see no reason to have the people who are capable of paying not do so.

        If these schools aren’t allowed to maintain these endowments in the same way they will just bias their admissions towards those who can pay full freight. Schools will admit even more rich kids then they currently do.

        We saw this in our own admissions saga this year where we tried to differentiate between truly need-blind schools and need-aware ones. Our oldest was trying to decide between a couple of candidates for ED and we advised him to go with the one that we thought would most likely actually guarantee a realistic package, given that we were committing to attend in ED. (This one was also his first choice, which was fortunate.) If the school couldn’t have gone need blind then (1) we would not have been able to commit to applying ED and (2) he would have been less likely to have been admitted, ED or at all.


      2. oh, I understand that schools spend their endowments on aid, and even more so for the smaller endowments.

        but I don’t see this concern being one that the government should indirectly subsidize.


    2. I defend not at all the tax benefits of the not for profit status of universities, the endowments (which are not required to spend, unlike non-educational foundations). I thought the endowment task was a good thing:

      But, I’m not going to spend time railing against the elite college system that I do not think will change. I don’t think trying to offer more access is a solution to more than just an individual, but I don’t want to message that the opportunities are impossible.


      1. Eh, who trusts Harvard? Certainly not me. But, that doesn’t make the SAT any more trustworthy at selecting those who get provided educational opportunity. I’m resigned to letting Harvard select by the criteria they chose (though I fully support taxing their hedge fund/endowment). I think Harvard is playing its own game (and, not necessarily the same game as all the elite universities, which are not identical to each other).

        But, I do agree that we should be devoting our energy (generally) to thinking about the schools that affect the most people, and not the elites (even though I’ll still pay attention to the choices of the schools I and my family benefited from).

        Leonhardt’s column on the schools for the working class, including CUNY: Bottom line, we’re supporting them as a society less than we used to and the students who benefit from them suffer as a result.


      2. I went to CUNY grad school and taught at CUNY-Hunter. My dad taught at CUNY-CCNY for 35 years. My mom was a first gen student at CUNY-Hunter. Steve taught at CUNY-Bronx CC and CUNY-Baruch. So, I fully endorse CUNY.

        But one of the things that I’ve been learning about in the past few months is that traditional college – both Harvard and CUNY – is still not right for MOST students. Those community colleges are still operating as they are little Harvards. We have to totally throw out that model. Most people need everything from job training to classes about making affordable, healthy meals for their families. They need to know how to pay their taxes and how to avoid credit card debt. They need “adulting” education. There is a need for SOMETHING after college, but that SOMETHING should not resemble Intro to Pol Sci. If we heavily subsidize the post-high school education for a small segment of the population, then we have to provide SOMETHING for the rest of the population after high school, as well. It’s only fair.


      3. And free college isn’t the answer either, because the tuition at community college is minor next to a person’s other expenses that arise when you aren’t working, but are in the lecture hall. They need food, transportation, housing. We need something post-high school for everyone, and we need to be able to give people the freedom to actually take advantage of those opportunities.


      4. I am also not a fan and I clicked anyway. I do see the way this conversation digresses into being about the practices of Harvard (or other elite, selective colleges) that can only serve a very few as being part of the problem of addressing the issues you point out.


      5. “Most people need everything from job training to classes about making affordable, healthy meals for their families. They need to know how to pay their taxes and how to avoid credit card debt. They need “adulting” education.”

        I don’t fully understand the details of what the alternative system would look like especially in the context of also saying that living expenses should also be subsidized. I’m not sure that doing that wouldn’t delay the learning of “adulting” skills, rather than teaching them.

        How would this look? Would we designate a set of institutions as post-secondary options you could pick from, for free, while receiving a stipend for living expenses? Which institutions would this include? By which I mean, what services would they have to provide students? Could they be for profit institutions? Would our current systems (including the state universities, community college systems, and others) be permitted to opt in. Would the costs provided be capped? Could one avail oneself at any age? Or would be be subsiding 18-22 year olds?


      6. bj wrote, “I think Harvard is playing its own game (and, not necessarily the same game as all the elite universities, which are not identical to each other).”

        My evil solution would involve requiring Harvard (and similar) to stamp transcripts and diplomas, explaining which standards the graduate was admitted under: legacy, staff kid, athlete, affirmative action, etc, with tables explaining the standards for each. Packaging a legacy admit or an affirmative action admit as a merit admit is kind of fraudulent.

        Laura should unbend a bit and read Freddie de Boer’s newsletter stuff on college admissions and standardized testing, because it’s really very good.


      7. bj wrote, “But, I do agree that we should be devoting our energy (generally) to thinking about the schools that affect the most people, and not the elites (even though I’ll still pay attention to the choices of the schools I and my family benefited from).”

        It’s actually insane what disproportionate influence HYP graduates have on the country.

        Of the current justices, 4 are Harvard law graduates, 4 are Yale law graduates, with only ACB not being either.


      8. Laura said, ” Most people need everything from job training to classes about making affordable, healthy meals for their families. They need to know how to pay their taxes and how to avoid credit card debt. They need “adulting” education.”

        Ideally, that should happen during the high school years.

        After high school, people are too busy adulting to have time to learn to adult, if you see what I mean.


      9. Laura, some of Freddy is unlocked (think about the greasy guy by the schoolyard, ‘first one’s free, kid!’ and this is one of them


      10. “It’s actually insane what disproportionate influence HYP graduates have on the country.”

        That is the goal of the Harvard admissions policies.

        “The issue with Harvard is that it is an institution which is many things to many people. Harvard lets in the smart, talented, wealthy, and powerful, with various mixes of these elements.”

        “Harvard needs to take care of rich people, who tend to be white, and lucky, because it wants rich people to take care of Harvard. ”

        “Harvard also smiles upon the scions of Third World dynasties. They may not be brilliant, but they are likely to impact the lives of hundreds of millions through their possible ascension to the pinnacle of power”

        “Harvard educates the American ruling class. And it wants to continue to educate the American ruling class. As such, it is self-conscious of the fact that it, therefore, can’t have the demographic profile of Cal-Tech. Harvard doesn’t just want to incubate innovators, it wants to cultivate and train the administrators of the largesse that innovation allows.”


  2. On ramps at different times mean that you should be able to work for five years as a line worker and then still have an opportunity to go to college if the maturity of your brain and goals changes. My younger kiddo had a biology teacher who told them of her circuitous path, which involved hotel school and then managing major hotels for a number of years before returning to school to get a biology degree and then becoming a teacher.

    I had a post-doc in my lab who had been a printer (I haven’t heard all the details, but he did not have a college degree). He went to college in his late twenties, got a PhD in molecular biology, switched to neuroscience as a post doc, and is now a junior faculty member at a smallish college. When he took the post doc, the goal seemed unlikely, but he is proof of principle. I am hopeful that he will be a faculty member for another 20-30 years. I want those paths to be normalized, not just the one where you know what you are going to do at 60 when you are 17.


    1. There are on ramps at different times. In fact, the typical college students is in their mid-twenties, has a kid, and goes to a community college. Your experiences are not typical.


    2. Oh, I know the post-doc’s experience is entirely atypical (as are the experiences of many other people I know, my family, myself, and my children). My statement about on ramps is that there need to be more of them and they need to be more known.

      A kid who isn’t ready for college at 18, and goes to work at Starbucks instead, should have on ramps beyond that and should know something about what they might be (with, potentially, Starbucks being one of the providers of that on ramp):


  3. ” While many start college, finishing college proves to be difficult for many; nearly 40 percent of those college attenders do not graduate even after six years at a school.”

    “In Lake Wobegone, all of the children are above average” and maybe that’s so, but in the United States, half of the children are below average. There are a lot of kids for whom a twenty-page research paper with footnotes or the Krebs Cycle or calculus are not going to happen. Just not. And trying to pretend their way through a curriculum of which one of those is a part is cruel to the kids, to their parents, to their hope of any kind of a financial and family future and (if somehow they slide through) to potential employers.

    You can do curricula in turf management and office processes and warehouse procedures, and you can call them college, and that may be okay (but you sure as Hell don’t want those kids to come out of those curricula with $50000 of debt). If you lard in a bunch of positions as DEI people into those curricula you will load those who complete them up with debt. And I think you are really better off if the golf courses and insurance companies and mail order warehouses train people into their own procedures – less waste, better chance to build real loyalty between employer and employee.


    1. 1) I don’t think they are doing it, though, and are instead using college credentials as a stand in.
      2) people need paths for advancement, the warehouse job at 18 should not determine the future
      3) I don’t think the workplaces are going to provide adulting education or social skills training (Cammie McGovern is very pessimistic about how few of those positions work out)


      1. BeeJay, we rent out some rooms, and I have seen several tenants come through. These are no-longer-quite-young women with well over a hundred thousand in student debts, jobs which pay forty to fifty thousand, no realistic prospects of much better. Sometimes, they have cats. They will, in my best guess, never be able to marry and form a family. They have been betrayed by people who pretended to have their interests at heart.


      2. But that includes the people who are not offering the opportunity to learn without 100K in debt, not just the ones who induced them to take on the debt.


  4. Read the WaPost article spotlighting people who wrote about the burden of their student debts, and I continue to be shocked by the lack of understanding of exponential functions, including interest rates & epidemiological spread. It’s hard, but we need to do better in explaining.

    Also, many could only find minor ways *they* could have changed their behavior, mostly, trying to live more frugally rather than taking on the loans without truly understanding their impact into the future (with compounding interest).

    The loans I took as a student were interest deferred during my education, and so, when I paid them off, with the regular schedule, I was not hit by the effect of compounding (especially with deferments, interest only payment plans, . . . .). I believe that the availability for student loans for graduate degrees needs to be regulated, not made available on the neoliberal assumption that the students can independently assess value and risk and make a rational decision.


    1. believe that the availability for student loans for graduate degrees needs to be regulated, not made available on the neoliberal assumption that the students can independently assess value and risk and make a rational decision.

      There should not be student loans for any MS, PhD, or ED programs. Period.


    2. No loans for MS/MA, PhD, Ed programs. I think I agree. The perversion of the USC social work program, partnering with a for profit group & targeting students for student loans shouldn’t be defended, even if a few students benefited:

      Only programs with realistic income payoffs should be supported with student loans and schools should be more regulation of even those loans, because the time course for evaluation is too slow. I still think there is a problem because I think students are choosing some of these programs because they provide living expenses in the short term, at least as long as they can stay in the program. No amount of official information will change that incentive.

      I think we also need to cap the loans, for other programs as well, maybe even for medicine, pharmacy and nursing.

      And, provide more grant aid. Or a more clear income based repayment program where the loans disappear more quickly.


Comments are closed.