It is dawning on more and more people that we need to rethink our approach to higher education. For decades, both the government and the culture have sought to steer young people toward college as the path to both their individual and our national success. That strategy appears to have hit a point of diminishing returns.
In the model we have held out, young people will finish high school, enroll in college, receive a degree, and then begin careers that require college diplomas. But a significant percentage of Americans fail to make it from one step to the next, and public concern has really focused only on raising the percentage of people who take the first two steps.
It’s chiefly people who study the issue who are even aware of just how high college-dropout rates are. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that more than one-third of the students who enrolled in four-year colleges in 2003 did not receive a degree within the next six years. Nearly two-thirds of those who enrolled in community colleges did not. Among employed college graduates, one-third were in fields where a majority of jobholders considered college degrees unnecessary.
In a paper for the Manhattan Institute, Oren Cass estimates that only around one-sixth of young people are following the path our system lays out for them. Our policies are working for only a small minority of Americans, and a well-off minority at that.
To benefit the other five-sixths of Americans, we should change our priorities. We should work less on encouraging more people to go to college and more on expanding opportunities for people without college degrees. Governments should consider, for example, opening up job categories in public-sector employment that are currently reserved for degree holders. They should liberalize licensure laws, which would disproportionately benefit Americans without degrees. We may want to redeploy some of the money we spend subsidizing college and graduate school to post-high-school apprenticeship programs.
But we also need to rethink what happens in high school. The assumption that everyone should go to college has by now deeply affected the structure of education for ninth- through twelfth-graders. Turning away from the college-for-all mentality will require changing, among other things, our view of the purpose of high schools, our criteria for judging them, and their academic standards and curricula.
It has come to be widely assumed that the purpose of high school is to prepare teenagers to go to college. Mistaken ideas about the necessity and feasibility of getting everyone to go to college encouraged this assumption, but there were other reasons for making it. Third grade follows second and fourth follows third. In each grade from kindergarten through junior year of high school, the point is to prepare a child for the next one; and that next one is essentially the same for all students. Moving from senior year of high school to freshman year of college appears to be the next logical part of that sequence.
The alternative is to regard the end of high school as a capable adulthood. Schools should help parents equip young people to make good decisions — to exercise choice intelligently and responsibly, rather than to make the one obvious choice of going to college.
Because we see college as the goal of high school, we tend to think that good high schools are those where a high percentage of seniors enroll in college. Federal law reflects this assumption. The Every Student Succeeds Act, bipartisan 2015 legislation that renewed the federal government’s main K–12 educational programs, mandated that states publish report cards that include any information they collect about what proportion of each high school’s graduates enroll in a post-secondary institution. A graduate will not improve his school’s grade by getting a job instead — or even by actually getting a degree from college.
A better criterion for a successful high school would be that graduates tend either to find gainful employment or graduate from college within a few years. It’s not a perfect criterion, and we would not want to be monomaniacal about it; it would be a mistake to pressure colleges to lower their standards to improve their graduation rates. The great advantage of viewing high schools this way is that getting high-school seniors to enroll in colleges they are not able to complete would not count in the schools’ favor. Making the high-school diploma valuable to employers, on the other hand, would.
Academic standards should also change. They have largely been designed with college readiness in mind, although education policymakers have not always realized it. The Common Core standards are supposed to be geared toward both college readiness and career readiness. But the assumption is that, to be ready for a career, students need to know the same things that they need to know to be ready for college. That there is considerable overlap in what they need to know — some things all citizens should know — cannot be doubted. That what students in each category need to know is identical is highly unlikely.
In short, a shift away from college-for-all would require a fairly thorough reorientation of public policy, philanthropy, and culture. The place of both high school and college in our national life would have to change. Our mindset would have to change.
The principal, immediate objection to nearly any suggestion along these lines is that it is elitist to suggest that some people should not go to college. Critics of college-for-all are often dismissed on the ground that they themselves went to college, and expect their kids to go to college too. And it is true that discussions of education policy are dominated on all sides by people with college degrees. The participants are, very disproportionately, alumni of a few dozen highly selective colleges.
It’s a fact that distorts those discussions. It’s not a fact that implies that those people should assume that all Americans need to follow the same life path that they did, which is after all its own form of elitism. Those people should also be open to the possibility that some of their children might be better served by not going to college — especially if we take action to expand opportunities that do not involve time in college. We ought to be working toward a society in which we see that our children are not failures if they do not go to college, and that the high schools they attended are not failures either.
This article appears as “Changing High Schools ” in the August 12, 2019, print edition of National Review.