Monday, March 2, 2009

College for all?

This hasn't gotten a lot of play, but it has gotten some--and it's important. To be specific: in his recent speech to Congress, President Obama made it one of his administration's goals to get ALL young Americans to attend college:

"In his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, President Barack Obama called for every American to pursue some form of education beyond high school. It's an ambitious goal — some might say impossible. Currently, only two of every five American adults have a two- or four-year college degree. Millions of Americans struggle even to complete high school, with one in four dropping out. And even a high school degree is no guarantee a student is ready for college."

There are a lot of problems with this goal. The article linked to above lays out some of them.
But I think the biggest problem with this goal is simple: too many young people, when they get out of high school, are simply not ready yet to go to college. They're not mature enough. They don't want more school; they don't want to go to college. They don't yet understand how important it is. They're not yet motivated. They don't have the study skills, time management skills, and organizational skills needed to succeed in college. I've been teaching at the college level for over 20 years. I still teach. And I've seen this for myself. I suppose you can incentivize or even force all or most high school students to go on to college. But you can't make them succeed.

Now, notice that when I laid out the shortcomings of some students above, I often used the word "yet." Coming out of high school, students sometimes--often?--aren't ready for college. Yet. But they can be. As time goes on, as they spend time out of school in the "real world", they can gain that maturity and the motivation they need. But that takes time, and these are things students need to develop within themselves. So don't force students or overly-incentivize doubtful students to go to college before they're ready. Instead, let them take time away from school if they wish, let them learn some hard lessons about life in the real world without a college degree. And let them go to college when they're ready. They might not go to college until they're 25 or 30 years old. But you know what? Some of my very best, most outstanding students have been those who came back to school at that age, aware of how difficult life is without a college degree, having gained a great deal of maturity, and now determined to succeed. And many of them do.

But don't let this be, Mr. Obama, another example of government meddling where it shouldn't and screwing things up. Don't encourage students to go to college when they're not ready for it. It won't work. It will just waste money. And I fear there will be plenty of that to go around in the next 4 years...