College:  Whose Choice Is It?

There continues to be a flurry of discussion in media and education circles about providing different routes for secondary school students through both Career Technical Education (CTE) and community college degrees.

It is important to provide educational and career choice, to develop a trained work force, and to expand our sense of what it means to be educated.

However, when I hear people saying that a path other than four-year college is a good choice, it is usually not for their own children, but for “those kids.”  I don’t hear many people who have bachelors or advanced degrees hoping that their children will choose a career-training path rather than a four-year college. Research shows that parents with college degrees aspire to the same for their children.

So whose choice are we talking about?

There is a slippery slope when you distinguish career and college paths for students. Historically, students from lower socio-economic classes have been tracked into vocational training. Community college, which the president is proposing be free/reduced, has long been a good economic choice for post-secondary education. And we are fortunate that California community colleges not only grant two-year degrees but also are feeders for our CSUs and UCs.  However, community college is disproportionately the choice of students who graduate high school in need of substantial remediation. In addition, community college is often the choice for lower-income families, and the drop-out rate is abysmally high.

We know that completing a four-year degree is inextricably linked to higher lifetime income, healthy and longer life expectancy, and participation in all aspects of community and civic life. And while it is not for every student, and every student will not succeed there, we feel that every student should be given the chance if he/she has the dream and the drive to pursue it.  Opportunity is, after all, a key part of what we call the American Dream.

Many who support CTE and community college degrees say that they can be a path to a four-year degree. The logic goes like this:  give students the choice for career education and the chance to make a living wage and then, if desired, they can pursue a four-year degree later when they are ready/solvent.

That argument presupposes that given the time, money, and opportunity, that path will remain open.

What it doesn’t take into account, and what my colleagues and I argue needs to be assured, is that students get the baseline preparation for a four-year degree in high school, regardless of their plans after graduation. This means that every student is academically prepared and has the necessary information and guidance for college to be considered a choice. Only then is choice truly given to each individual.

I lead 10,000 Degrees, so clearly I do have a bias. But the bias is in favor of educational opportunity, not a “four-year fits all” belief. I just want to be sure that when we say students should have choice, that the choice of pursuing a four-year degree is truly open and not limited by their race, ethnicity, family’s income, education level, or zip code, and certainly not by the coursework, encouragement, or guidance they receive—or don’t—in their high schools.