Should My Students Go To College?

My art classroom this year is in a giant, sun-lit room surrounded by kitchens along its perimeter. It used to be a home economics room, and we make good use of the storage cabinets and sinks. It also still has ancient potholders and whisks in the depths of some rarely-used drawers! “Home ec” hasn’t been offered as a middle school elective here in many years. Neither has auto shop, or wood shop. Students regularly ask, “What happened to cooking classes?” – I wonder, myself.

The history of schools is long-entwined with industry and capitalism – one purpose of schooling is to prepare young people to be productive workers in society. As labor in the U.S. continues to shift, how are we best preparing students for life after school? Who might be left behind?

I predict that most of my current students will go to colleges and universities – most come from middle- to upper-middle-class families, with many parents in white collar jobs. I’ve taught high-poverty populations for years, as well, and have always taught a significant number of students receiving special ed services. I believe tracking students – moving them into separate educational pathways based on academic performance, can be limiting, at best, for students.

Still, is college for everyone? At a recent College and University Spirit Day, all teachers at my school were expected to talk with their homerooms about their college experiences – the goal was to get students thinking concretely about college visions for themselves. But it didn’t feel honest to me, to talk exclusively about the rewards and joys of my higher education. I shared that I’m still paying off a large amount of student debt, and that I might not get a Masters of Fine Arts again if I had a time machine. A college degree has been a symbol, and sometimes a ticket, for class movement in America. But the rising cost of tuition brings into question, whether a degree offers a worthwhile return on investment. According to Claudio Sanchez with Morning Edition, tuition costs in Washington state have risen 70% in the past few years.

In 2014, a partnership between the U.S. Dept. of Labor and the U.S. Dept. of Education forged the Workplace Innovation and Opportunity Act – a law that “places heightened emphasis” on workforce preparation for out-of-school youth (youth aged 16-24 without a high school diploma). Previously, the focus of programs for out-of-school youth was on gaining a GED and getting higher education credits. But the U.S. Dept. of Ed. Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education site has not been updated since January 2017 – it is unclear how this program is supported by our current federal administration. 

Seattle Public Schools has Career and Technical Education department that invites students to apply for courses at schools and regional Skill Centers. There are a number of programs offered, led by workers in those fields, including Aerospace, Automotive, Maritime, and Culinary Science. This offers exciting possibilities for students interested in trades, and is one way we could get closer to Washington’s educational attainment goal of 70% of adults (aged 25-44) having a post-secondary credential by 2030 (currently, about 33% of adults have a post-secondary credential). The use of “credential” versus “degree” reflects a growing emphasis in WA on Career and Technical Education (CTE) as an important option for students, amongst other possible paths. The WA-based foundation Partnership for Learning expands on the definition of “credential” as meaning “college, an apprenticeship, or other training that will prepare (students) for career success.” 

These goals feel particularly relevant to me, as a middle-class worker in a city with a rapidly increasing cost of living. I want my students, and all young people in Seattle and WA state, to transition to adulthood with all that they need to find jobs that are meaningful and sustainable, and to live here long-term (if they want). It’s exciting to see that state superintendent Chris Reykdal sees expansion of CTE as a legislative priority, and one piece of the huge, vital imperative to decrease the opportunity gap.

As I design curriculum in the art room around the development of 21st Century Thinking Skills: collaboration, communication, perseverance, reflective thinking, critical thinking, and creative thinking, I am trying to prioritize practices that students will use in any future workplace. As we use our hands to build, carve, sew, sketch, and design, I hope students think widely about their post-secondary options, regardless of what previous generations held as top-priority. Maybe that means college, and maybe it won’t. 

2 thoughts on “Should My Students Go To College?

  1. Mark Gardner

    We need to open the after-high-school conversation to value options other than college. College is no longer the slam-dunk guarantee for prosperity that it once supposedly was. AND now more than ever, taking time to work and learn in the real world, and THEN go back to college when you are ready/mature enough to take the learning more seriously, will likely get a much better return on investment.

  2. Jan Kragen

    The other day I said to my students “if you go to college.” They looked at me, confused. “Mrs. Kragen, we’re ALL going to college.” (They are in the Highly Capable class and that is the expectation, after all.)

    So I told them the story of Peter Crabtree. “You know how we do Market Day in our classroom? I didn’t used to do that–I did the stock market simulation, which Peter loved. Then when he went to high school, he was in a class where they did something similar to our Market Day. He and a couple of friends made chocolates. Once the class was over, the friends quit, but Peter kept going. By the time he was out of high school he had opened a shop selling chocolates. ChocMo in Poulsbo.”

    They all gasped. They know–and love–ChocMo.

    (By the way, he also owns the liquor store next door and another business in Bremerton and is opening a co-working space in Poulsbo.)

    As I told my students, Peter went right from high school into making money.

    The thing you have to notice is that his schools taught him about money and about entrepreneurial skills.

    Last night I had a general contractor over for dinner. The trades are crying out for students to enter their work force–carpentry, electricians, plumbing. Chimney cleaning. Carpet or tile laying. You know these jobs pay well because you’ve had to pay to have the work done. You may have noticed how hard it’s getting to schedule anyone to come do any of these jobs. As people retire and no new people enter the trades, it will be increasingly difficult to find a plumber. Or any of the rest!

    It’s in all of our interests to encourage students to think beyond the big-box college.


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