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Robert Reich: Why College Isn’t (and Shouldn’t Have to be) for Everyone

With inequality at record levels and almost all the economic gains going to the top, there’s more pressure than ever to get the golden ring.
Image from Flickr via sarah-ji

By Robert Reich
By arrangement with Robert Reich

I know a high school senior who’s so worried about whether she’ll be accepted at the college of her choice she can’t sleep.

The parent of another senior tells me he stands at the mailbox for an hour every day waiting for a hoped-for acceptance letter to arrive.

Parents are also uptight. I’veheard of some who have stopped socializing with other parents of children competing for admission to the same university.

Competition for places top-brand colleges is absurdly intense.

With inequality at record levels and almost all the economic gains going to the top, there’s more pressure than ever to get the golden ring.

A degree from a prestigious university can open doors to elite business schools and law schools—and to jobs paying hundreds of thousands, if not millions, a year.

So parents who can afford it are paying grotesque sums to give their kids an edge.

You might call this affirmative action for the rich.

They “enhance” their kid’s resumes with such things as bassoon lessons, trips to preserve the wildlife in Botswana, internships at the Atlantic Monthly.

They hire test preparation coaches. They arrange for consultants to help their children write compelling essays on college applications.

They make generous contributions to the elite colleges they once attended, to which their kids are applying—colleges that give extra points to “legacies” and even more to those from wealthy families that donate tons of money.

You might call this affirmative action for the rich.

The same intensifying competition is affecting mid-range colleges and universities that are doing everything they can to burnish their own brands—competing with other mid-range institutions to enlarge their applicant pools, attract good students, and inch upward on the U.S. News college rankings.

Every college president wants to increase the ratio of applications to admissions, thereby becoming more elite.

Excuse me, but this is nuts.

The biggest absurdity is that a four-year college degree has become the only gateway into the American middle class.

But not every young person is suited to four years of college. They may be bright and ambitious but they won’t get much out of it. They’d rather be doing something else, like making money or painting murals.

They feel compelled to go to college because they’ve been told over and over that a college degree is necessary.

Yet if they start college and then drop out, they feel like total failures.

Forty-six percent of recent college graduates were in jobs that don’t even require a college degree.

Even if they get the degree, they’re stuck with a huge bill—and may be paying down their student debt for years.

And all too often the jobs they land after graduating don’t pay enough to make the degree worthwhile.

Last year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Forty-six percent of recent college graduates were in jobs that don’t even require a college degree.

The biggest frauds are for-profit colleges that are raking in money even as their students drop out in droves, and whose diplomas are barely worth the ink-jets they’re printed on.

America clings to the conceit that four years of college are necessary for everyone, and looks down its nose at people who don’t have college degrees.

This has to stop. Young people need an alternative. That alternative should be a world-class system of vocational-technical education.

A four-year college degree isn’t necessary for many of tomorrow’s good jobs.

For example, the emerging economy will need platoons of technicians able to install, service, and repair all the high-tech machinery filling up hospitals, offices, and factories.

And people who can upgrade the software embedded in almost every gadget you buy.

Today it’s even hard to find a skilled plumber or electrician.

Yet the vocational and technical education now available to young Americans is typically underfunded and inadequate. And too often denigrated as being for “losers.”

These programs should be creating winners.

It’s time to give up the idea that every young person has to go to college.

Germany—whose median wage (after taxes and transfers) is higher than ours—gives many of its young people world-class technical skills that have made Germany a world leader in fields such as precision manufacturing.

A world-class technical education doesn’t have to mean young people’s fates are determined when they’re fourteen.

Instead, rising high-school seniors could be given the option of entering a program that extends a year or two beyond high school and ends with a diploma acknowledging their technical expertise.

Community colleges—the under-appreciated crown jewels of America’s feeble attempts at equal opportunity—could be developing these curricula. Businesses could be advising on the technical skills they’ll need, and promising jobs to young people who complete their degrees with good grades.

Government could be investing enough money to make these programs thrive. (And raising taxes on top incomes enough to temper the wild competition for admission to elite colleges that grease the way to those top incomes.)

Instead, we continue to push most of our young people through a single funnel called a four-year college education—a funnel so narrow it’s causing applicants and their parents excessive stress and worry about “getting in;” that’s too often ill suited and unnecessary, and far too expensive; and that can cause college dropouts to feel like failures for the rest of their lives.

It’s time to give up the idea that every young person has to go to college, and start offering high-school seniors an alternative route into the middle class.

Robert B. Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future and The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism. His latest, Beyond Outrage, is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.

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15 comments for Robert Reich: Why College Isn’t (and Shouldn’t Have to be) for Everyone

  1. Comment by Bob Klahn on March 25, 2015 at 1:07 am

    I suspect you suffer from the mind set of the people you associate with. The 4 yr degree pathology is not, I believe, as widespread as you think. Most Americans just believe it’s all going to hell and there is no hope.

    And then you seem to think Hillary is any kind of an answer? Not one bit. You and Elizabeth Warren. If not, recruit a substitute.

  2. Comment by Jackie H, Allen on March 25, 2015 at 3:11 am

    Mr.Reich ,You are absolutely right.if this Country does not get the next generation started training for the technical skills jobs of tomorrow. it’s hard to say where the Country will be.But they have jobs out there right now for skill labor.and paying good wages.and nobody is filling the positions.?Why are the High schools and colleges.Telling youger generation.that skill jobs are not worthy looking into for Careers?

  3. Comment by SM on March 25, 2015 at 8:30 am

    I would echo many of your sentiments Mr. Reich. I have witnessed first hand the absurdity and false perceptions working in admissions for the last 12 years and currently as a Director of a top ranked school. College are becoming more and more of glorified job placement agencies, where parents and students pursue degrees assuming that they will be guaranteed employment exerting minimal to little effort. This is a dangerous proposition because it forces collegebound students to take on debt for programs that they really aren’t prepared for or have a genuine interest in.

    Having worked with two close German friends that are in their early 20’s, I would have to say their approach toward education is far superior. Both went through an apprentice program, one in Chemistry and the other in Supply Chain logistics with a German company in the U.S. who funded them and their housing for two years with the option of funding an American degree after they were done. They both were making an outstanding living before they 22-dirivng luxury cars and living comfortably. One returned one to pursue his degree and one stayed in the U.S. Hands down they had better experience at 22 with an apprenticeship than a recent American college grad-even in a STEM field.

    The American education needs to change and understand that it’s not a one size fits all approach that is best. The standardized test protester is right on the money.

  4. Comment by Elizabeth Browning on March 25, 2015 at 10:01 am

    You identify one of my chief criticisms of the much touted “miracle” in K12 education reform in New Orleans. Following the firing of the city’s teachers and principals, Louisiana’s Recovery School District turned management and staffing of NO public schools to a patchwork of private charter management organizations (CMOs).

    Professionally trained and credentialed teachers have been replaced by Teach For America recruits from elite universities – without any preparation for, or experience with, teaching. With only a brief 5-week training on how to control their students, the primarily white and affluent recruits are given classrooms of 99% black students of which 98% live in poverty. The walls of the schools are covered with posters for Ivy League schools, and the mission/promise is that every child will go to a 4-year university.

    With a focus on extreme discipline, not unlike military schools, no CMOs initially provided services to students with special cognitive, physical or behavioral needs – violating state and Federal law. A lawsuit brought on behalf of parents by the Southern Poverty Law Center made this CMO discrimination public.

    There are efforts by some NO non-profits to develop opportunities for excellent vocational education, including interships/partnerships between business and industry with students in their last two years of high school.

    Such an approach is optimal for students in NO, where careers in culinary, the Arts, travel and tourism, engineering, conservation and emerging technologies are available.

  5. Comment by Elizabeth Greene on March 25, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    Thank you Professor Reich. I have been banging this drum for many years but it just doesn’t seem to get across to our citizens that there is a great deal to be learned at technical and vocational colleges. There are so many young people who are working in retail and fast food stores who have a bachelor’s degree that has not helped them into a job above minimum wage.

  6. Comment by Eric Miller on March 25, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    Mr. Reich, I agree with you, and would love to see you do more than give commencement addresses at community colleges. Why don’t you model the changes you are encouraging by teaching a course or two at Chabot, Laney or Berkeley City?

  7. Comment by Parker on March 25, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    I may disagree with many things that Mr. Reich believes politically, but he’s spot-on about this one. Not only does the race to get into the preferred college make no sense for families, it’s created an arms race within the university community as it chases these students. The boutique dining commons and rock-climbing walls are now selling points for colleges as they race for a diminishing supply of high school graduates in many states. We also must have employers understand that using a college degree as a mandatory cutoff line for applicants and a cop-out for HR staffs is counterproductive for many positions. (yes, I have a degree).

  8. Comment by Jim Mooney on March 25, 2015 at 5:00 pm

    Go into lifelong debt for a worthless degree. Makes the Banksters, crooked collection agencies, and their bribees at the Dept of ED happy, though.

    ED churns loans through cosy collection agencies, taking them back then sending them out again, charging a Six Thousand Dollar fee each time, to add to already unpayable debt, for a few lying collection letters to students – that make phony promises about deals they never make. It’s a racket and a shame that no one is looking into.

  9. Comment by Robert Klahn on March 25, 2015 at 6:03 pm

    In response to Mr. Jackie H, Allen,

    Mr Allen, those jobs DO NOT EXIST!

    Read Paul Krugman’s columns on that. If there were a shortage in any skilled field wages would rise, and if the shortage was sever or long lasting wages would skyrocket. They aren’t.

    The claim that they pay well would be much more believable if they told you how much they pay. Less than $25/hr for any skilled trade is not well paid.For top level skills over $30 would be more reasonable, esp so if there was an alleged shortage.

    They are BSing the public when they claim a shortage of skilled workers.

  10. Comment by Marco on March 25, 2015 at 7:57 pm

    Having held academic posts in several colleges and universities in the United States and Europe I came to conclude that the whole system is wrong and contributes little toward the betterment of society or the individual. I started to advise parents of students at very expensive liberal arts colleges that perhaps they would be better advised to give the tuition and expenses to their children to start up businesses or to explore potential ways of spending their lives productively rather than spending four years at an expensive finishing school where social life seems to be far more important than true education. Naturally this was disapproved of by college administrators who thought I was endangering the cash cow. To avoid the charge of hypocrisy i walked away voluntarily from ‘academia’ and still believe that 90 percent of colleges should be closed down or turned into technical institutes where students could learn something productive, but certainly would not be precluded from combining this with an intelligent common humanistic program. Basically we need to adopt an entirely new paradigm for higher education and indeed for education in the secondary and primary level also, but i fear ingrained snobbery, vested interests, and lack of vision will ensure that this will not come about.

  11. Comment by Marc Carter on March 26, 2015 at 1:38 am

    I agree that some people may not need or want or benefit from a college education right after high-school. I do not agree that anyone should avoid college. We have far too many people with no education in the humanities and I believe that causes them to be incomplete individuals. Without history, literature and other humanities courses people have no real appreciation of where we are in history, what the human potential is, what options there are for systems of belief or scientific evolution. College is the first time in a student’s life where they are treated like an adult in class. This is also a learning experience. When people use education only to get a job they end up being lopsided and ignorant. I would rather have a culture of well-rounded people. College should be free and free of sports. Learning is something we should never stop doing.

  12. Comment by Brett Minkin on March 26, 2015 at 4:49 am

    I grew up in Palo Alto, CA, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Many of my classmates were children of Stanford professors, software developers, and successful business executives. There was an unspoken understanding that most of us would all go to college, and be successful like our parents. The pressure to succeed has only gotten worse there, and now Palo Alto has been in the national news for a more sinister reason.- teenage suicide. Over the past few years, there have been several students from my old high school who have all killed themselves by stepping in front of trains at the same intersection, which is less than a mile from where I grew up. The pressure to succeed and get into a “good school” has become too much. In my case, I dropped out of university after two years. My parents were mortified. Eventually, I got into a two year Respiratory Therapy program at a local community college. Twenty-five years later, I am still a respiratory therapist, making a six-figure salary, living a comfortable suburban, upper-middle class life. I am living proof that there is more than one path to success.

  13. Comment by Karen Burch on March 26, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    I’m a mom of two young men(17,20) both struggling with wanting to attend college. Your contributions to this conversation will provide me a much needed break from the fears I’ve been living with the past three years.
    I’ve always encouraged them to seek to do what will make them most happy. From their earliest age I’ve told them that college must come prior to marriage and children. They get it. No children yet. Hope is still alive. I will be sharing this with my men.
    I must thank all of you for all you have done and continue to do.
    Thank you!

  14. Comment by Norma Lee on March 27, 2015 at 12:40 am

    Perhaps we should look a Iiran’s educational system(Yes,Iran)where middle-school select,according to interests & ability whether they attend Vocation or Science-oriented High School. They must pass stiff tests To attend University…but they are free as are higher degrees.By the way, 65% of medical students are women!

  15. Comment by Bert Smith on March 27, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    As Robert Reich knows the answer is the School to Work program that was developed by the Clinton administration when he was Sec, of Labor. An excellent pilot program was established in New York State when the first Gov Cuomo was in office. The program was disbanded when Gov Pataki and Pres. Bush trashed everything Clinton and Cuomo had accomplished!

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