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College Is Not for All

Most young Americans miss out on commencement

The countless ceremonies playing out across America this month are called “commencements,” supposedly, because they celebrate not the conclusion of an education but rather the start of whatever comes next: after high school, heading away to college; after college, the exciting new life of a young 20-something pursuing a career. This is the pathway idealized in the American imagination, and the one we spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year to pave. Yet it is not one that most young people follow.

Having belatedly discovered this fiction, progressives are now demanding widespread forgiveness of the student debt many young people accumulated as they stumbled along and then off the path. But this too misunderstands the typical experience of young Americans and only reinforces the obsession with college students as the population to be served.

According to new data from American Compass’s “Failing on Purpose” survey of 2,000 young adults and parents, only one in eight young Americans aged 19 to 22 are enrolled in college more than one hour from home. By comparison, half are still living at home. Look further down the road, and only one in eight young Americans in their mid-to-late 20s have earned a degree, moved out of their parents’ house, and found work that they consider a “career” rather than “just a job.” One in four never went to college at all; one in four dropped out.

This reality has made little dent in America’s commitment to “college for all.” Under the twin banners of “equal opportunity” and “upward mobility,” we continue asking our public schools to identify the most academically talented children and prepare them for leafy academic enclaves, from whence they can be sorted into well-paying jobs in the globe’s most prosperous cities. In our zeal to optimize this system for extracting each diamond from the rough, we willfully neglect everyone else. 

The choice is most obvious in data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which reports that most of its member nations have 35 to 55 percent of their upper secondary students enrolled in vocational education and training. The United States is excluded from the data because we have “no distinct vocational path at upper secondary level.”  President Barack Obama’s comment, “I’m glad that everybody wants to go to college,” captured well our nation’s college-for-all mindset and helps explain our conversion of high schools into college-prep academies.

Resources have flowed accordingly. The share of federal K-through-12 spending on career and technical education fell from 12 percent in the 1980s to 3 percent today. Across all levels of government, we now spend more than $200 billion annually to subsidize higher education while, for those not on the college pathway, we offer a firm handshake and the best of luck. 

Perhaps our college-for-all model would be defensible if it worked. But the idea that everyone can succeed in college has long been discredited, if anyone ever believed it to begin with. Most parents acknowledge that “some students have the academic ability to succeed in college, but others do not”; most would prefer their own child be offered a three-year apprenticeship rather than a full-ride college scholarship—with good reason.

Why have we made this mistake? Mainly a concern about “lost potential.” A system that emphasized the needs of the typical student would inadvertently fail to maximize the potential of some high performers. Someone who could have excelled at Harvard might instead get “stuck” on a vocational track. And heaven forbid someone who could have become a prestigious management consultant in New York City instead becomes a successful general contractor and leader in the community where he was raised. This offends the meritocratic sensibilities of an elite that sees its own pathway as uniquely worthy and wants to believe that opening the same pathway to all will validate the game it has won. So education reformers focus religiously on test scores and college admissions, treat everyone as a prospective college graduate, and when that fails for most, well, they promise to keep trying.

This is doubly wrong. It overestimates the cost of some people failing to maximize their academic potential. Building a decent life in one’s own community is hardly a prison sentence. Indeed, most Americans prefer it to meritocratic self-maximization. Both the parents of young adults and young adults themselves say they would prefer a good career close to home to the best possible career far from home, and that by age 40 they would prefer to have a family but struggle financially rather than be well-off but single.

Our current approach also underestimates the cost of failing to serve the vast majority of young Americans. They are guilty of nothing but lacking the academic aptitude and career ambition that constitute “merit” according to those blessed with plenty of both. Yet we fail to prepare them for success, often burden them with debt, tell them they are inadequate, and then wonder why they fail to find good jobs, build strong families, or participate effectively as citizens. So many of our nation’s major problems—rising inequality, geographic concentration of wealth, deindustrialization, labor-force dropout, declining family formation, “deaths of despair”—derive in part from an education system dedicated to strip-mining talent out of communities rather than supporting talent in them. 

In this sense, we have simply lost sight of what public education is for. We spend more on educating our children than almost any other public priority, comparable to our spending on either national defense or Medicare. Most Americans would balk at providing a few thousands of dollars in unconditional support to a low-income family, but few question the $30,000 spent per year educating the family’s two children. It is the foundational public investment in what should be the common good: preparing the next generation to take up the responsibilities of the prior one and build upon what they inherit. Yet communities find themselves conscripted into funding their own demise, by preparing a few children to leave and the rest to fail.

The good news is that most Americans understand this intuitively, even if policymakers do not. Asked which is more important for public schools, Americans choose “helping students develop the skills and values needed to build decent lives in the communities where they live” over “helping students maximize their academic potential and pursue admission to colleges and universities with the best possible reputations” by more than two-to-one. That preference holds across young adults and parents; Democrats, Independents, and Republicans; and all different education and income levels. The better news is that, unlike college for all, preparing young people to build decent lives is something our schools could actually achieve, if we tell them to try.

Oren Cass is the executive director at American Compass, an organization whose mission is to restore an economic consensus that emphasizes the importance of family, community, and industry to the nation’s liberty and prosperity.

Wells King is the research director at American Compass.

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