Department of English

Spring 2010 Edition

College for All: Is It Really for Everyone?

Celeste Miller
Argumentative 1010 1st Place
Professor: Dr. Schuyler

For centuries, societies have considered education to be one of the most valuable investments in a culture and a privilege to obtain. However, a recent trend is pushing to define higher education as a right and essential for a successful career. As employers begin to follow this trend, many talented and skilled potential employees are turned away because they do not have a college diploma. However, if high schools and occupational colleges can adequately train an individual to be competitive in the job market, employers will hire them without a four-year college degree. By having good "soft skills" and competency at the high school level, many high school graduates, like our predecessors from decades past, can have successful careers without a college degree.

In their essay, "The Mission of the University," brothers Robert and Jon Solomon address some of the purposes a university should serve, and the qualities a college student pursuing a higher education should possess. Both Robert Solomon, a philosophy professor, and Jon Solomon, a professor of classics, are well-published in their respective fields.

Solomon and Solomon point out many reasons why a higher education can enrich a student's life, and, much like Steven Cahn, believe that everyone should receive this opportunity. Cahn is a philosophy professor and author of many books, including Education and the Democratic Ideal. In an excerpt from this book, "The Democratic Framework," Cahn discusses several important topics relating to the importance of a liberal higher education to the stability of society and purposes of a democracy. Cahn supports the view of having a universal higher education and validates his point with anecdotes.

On the opposite side of the issue is James E. Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum is a professor of sociology, human development and social policy at Northwestern University. In his publication, "Universal Higher Education: Challenges and Alternative Strategies for Serving the New College Student," Rosenbaum addresses some common misconceptions concerning a "college-for-all" approach. He also offers some suggestions for college students to be more successful, and alternatives for universal higher education. Zachary Karabell, a well-known author and news commentator, has a similar attitude on universal higher education. In his essay, "The $10,000 Hoop: Has Higher Education Become an Exercise in Futility for most Americans?" Karabell addresses some of the problems and issues that arise with what he believes is becoming a "mandatory higher education."

Although Cahn provides ample support for the importance of higher education using anecdotes, Rosenbaum's and Karabell's essays argue against universal higher education, using empirical and authoritative evidence. They believe that there are many roads to success besides a four-year college degree for many high school graduates.

The first reason college is not for everyone is that universal, mandated higher education is a fairly recent development and as yet an unproven theory. Most of our parents and grandparents did not obtain college degrees (Karabell 256). "Only 32 percent of a national survey of [high school] seniors in 1982 indicated that their counselors urged them to go to college, but 10 years later fully 66 percent of seniors made the same statement" (Rosenbaum 18). Our society is shifting toward a college-for-all approach, even though past generations have thrived with promising careers without college degrees. It is true that our fast-paced, technology driven society does require a greater number of highly educated techno-savvy individuals. However, this mandatory approach is pressuring high school counselors to encourage a majority of students toward a college education whether they are ready or not, even though there are other valid alternatives.

Some of these students being encouraged to attend a university are not prepared for college because they have not acquired the needed skills they should have acquired in high school. These students are at increased risk of wasting time and money in remedial college classes or dropping out altogether. Although these high-risk students may take classes, and a small percentage of them may even finish a degree, this does not always signify competence (Karabell 254). "[Forty-six] percent of students enroll in at least one remedial course, and among those entering community colleges, 64 percent enroll in remedial courses" (Rosenbaum 18). If these students had been given different advice concerning more desirable options or increased their effort in high school, they might have revised their plans for the future. Many of these students are not really "college-bound," but work-bound; they do not benefit from the college-for-all approach (Rosenbaum 16). This recent trend of encouraging all students, ready or not, to attend a university is one reason that the current push for universal higher education is not ideal.

A second reason a college diploma is unnecessary is that many current employers are willing to hire students with high school-level skills. However, employers have found that a high school diploma no longer equates with high school level skills. Employers even complain of high school graduates often being illiterate. "More than 40 percent of high school seniors lack ninth-grade math skills, and 60 percent lack ninth-grade reading skills" (Rosenbaum 18). As a result, employers require a college diploma to ensure that an individual possesses high school level skills. Employers say that if they could trust a high school diploma, they wouldn't have to hire college graduates to do a job a competent high school graduate could accomplish (Rosenbaum 18). Unfortunately, our high schools are failing these students and leaving many of them unprepared for college or the labor market. As a result, society makes an effort to compensate by implementing universal higher education, which "is a response to the failings (real or imagined) of high school" (Karabell 254). Students who are successful in high school and possess soft skills, such as social competence and a good work ethic, can get great jobs without a college degree. Soft skills are just as important in the workplace as academic skills (Karabell 255). Soft skills are also strong predictors of job performance. Sociability, discipline, leadership, homework time, and attendance in high school were significant predictors for students' educational attainment and earnings nine years after graduating from high school (Rosenbaum 19). "Employers report that they need so-called soft skills even more than academic skills, and high schools can provide these skills as well as colleges can" (Rosenbaum 18).

This leads to a third reason that college is not for everyone. Many high school students don't realize the importance of their effort in high school and believe that they can slack off until they get to college. This is a common misconception with severe detrimental effects. As it turns out, high school performance is a strong predictor of long term outcomes. "For students who earn no college degree, a rise of one letter grade (from C to B) is associated with a 13 percent earnings gain at age 28—almost as much as that of a B.A. degree, which increases earnings by just over 14 percent" (Rosenbaum 19). Students who are willing to put in the effort during high school are the ideal students for college because they possess positive motivation. This right kind of attitude is "the most important prerequisite for higher education" (Solomon and Solomon 241). Higher high school GPA's are a good predictor of future success because they are a symptom of the kind of student who is destined for higher education—"one who really wants to learn, who has a thirst for knowledge and a desire for wisdom" (Solomon and Solomon 241).

The value underlying all these points is relevant to all those directly and indirectly influenced by a non-mandatory higher educational system. Those who do attend college will be prepared for the challenges that await them and will be a valuable investment for their community. Those who do not attend college leave more resources available for universities while finding better alternatives for themselves to suit their lifestyles, personalities, and skill levels. Society as a whole would benefit from this type of higher educational system.

Despite the empirical evidence illustrating the detriments of a universal higher educational system, many support the idea of college-for-all. One reason for this is supported by Cahn, who argues that a higher education for everyone is essential for a successful democracy. In order for people to make informed decisions in the political world, they need to be knowledgeable and educated. Cahn elaborates, saying that background information gained in a liberal education is necessary in order to provide the fundamental basics a voter needs to make educated decisions in a democracy. In addition to this, a responsible citizen should also be informed about the current issues being debated in the political arena (202).

Cahn continues by saying that higher education is necessary in order for individuals to become responsible citizens and to gain wisdom. Without these benefits that often come through a college education, a true democracy cannot survive (203-204). However, is a college education really necessary for someone to attain knowledge and wisdom? I'd like to offer an example that illustrates that this is not so. One who has attained national fame and mounting success without a college education is Glenn Beck. Too poor to afford a college education, he made his way in the world with a high school diploma. He is now one of the most watched cable news shows on television, educating his viewers about current political topics and the structure and functions of government and the Constitution. How did he become so educated? He became a voracious reader and learned as much as he could from as many books as he could get his hands on. Beck is a prime example of one who can succeed without a college degree because of his own initiative and motivation (Beck).

A second reason that many support a universal higher education is the belief that Americans are entitled to it. Karabell points out: "Clinton, in his State of the Union address, announced that higher education is an American birthright" (252). Many believe that because they live in the United States, they should be given a college education, with some believing they should be given this for free. Indeed, there are millions of dollars invested in higher education by both state and federal governments. Other political representatives support the idea of making two years of college as universal as high school is now (Karabell 252). However, a college education is not a birthright that every American should be handed for free. The main reason for this is that people often do not value something that they do not have to earn. As a result, students would approach college the same way they do high school which, as Rosenbaum pointed out earlier, is far from ideal. This would lead to college becoming simply an extension of high school, with even a greater number of remedial classes being offered. Lengthening high school would not solve the problems of an uneducated democracy.

Instead of making college mandatory, having a better quality secondary education that emphasizes the importance of literacy, responsibility, and the desire for wisdom would be more effective and yield equal if not more satisfactory results for creating a more educated democracy. Higher education is more of a privilege than a right, and those who do not have the desire or opportunity for such an education can still lead a happy, successful life and be actively involved politically. Along with improved secondary education, other possible alternatives to college degrees are available for further development and exploration, such as occupational colleges and trade schools. Programs like these can equip students with needed and valuable skills that can prepare them for a variety of different careers. Also, four-year colleges could offer one or two year degree programs and certifications. Universities often avoid this, worrying that it will deter students from completing the four-year programs. However, many Ph.D. programs offer Master's degrees without drawing many students away from completing the Ph.D. (Rosenbaum 29). These alternatives to universal higher education would give many students the opportunity for a better career and higher earnings, while allowing them to do something they enjoy and benefitting society as a whole.

Works Cited
Beck, Glen. An Unlikely Mormon: The Conversion Story of Glenn Beck. Mercury Radio Arts, Inc., 2008. DVD.
Cahn, Steven. "The Democratic Framework." Durst 198-205.
Durst, Russel K., ed. You Are Here: Readings on Higher Education for College Writers. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2003. Print.
Karabell, Zachary. "The $10,000 Hoop: Has Higher Education Become an Exercise in Futility for Most Americans?" Durst 252-56.
Rosenbaum, James. "Universal Higher Education: Challenges and Alternative Strategies for Serving the New College Student." Online Posting. 1 Jan. 2004. Forum for the Future of Higher Education. 1 Feb. 2010. . Solomon, Robert, and Jon Solomon. "The Mission of the University." Durst 235-241.