Why I Disagree With Robert Reich on College and Career Readiness

Jose Vilson Jose, Race

Last week, many of my friends shared this article from Robert Reich, a critique of the current “college for all” movement that’s forced millions of students into post-college (and for many lifelong) debt to private universities and for-profit banks in the form of loans. From him:

The biggest absurdity is that a four-year college degree has become the only gateway into the American middle class. But not every young person is suited to four years of college. They may be bright and ambitious but they won’t get much out of it. They’d rather be doing something else, like making money or painting murals. They feel compelled to go to college because they’ve been told over and over that a college degree is necessary. Yet if they start college and then drop out, they feel like total failures. Even if they get the degree, they’re stuck with a huge bill — and may be paying down their student debt for years.

I agree with most of the article. Much of the piece is centered on middle to upper-class white parents insofar as some of the social indicators are concerned. I can see how the pressure to push everyone to college only exacerbates inequity, because all the first and second generation college grads I know always feel a responsibility to give back to their families, an added burden that only makes middle-class status even more unattainable. Even when I went to college all those years ago ahem, people in those circles were talking about MBAs and masters degrees as the true barometer for gaining entry into the middle class.

Now that I’m 10 years deep into teaching, I think getting everyone through college as it currently exists is a horrible idea.

Yet, whenever someone brings up the idea of vocational schools and training, I tend to wince, not because vocational schools are somehow lesser than four-year colleges, but because the idea usually comes from teachers and school staff that want to dump troublesome kids somewhere, anywhere really. A few years ago, I found liberals who brought up vocational training to be, at best, myopic. Not much has changed.

Whenever we bring up vocational schooling, we should always keep in mind who folks have in mind when they say these things. Do we have vocational schools distributed across New Rochelle and Scarsdale as well as Harlem and the Lower East Side? Will we bus rich kids from the suburbs into those schools if there are no spaces available for vocational schools in the suburbs? And how does that affect the current Common Core agenda of “college and career ready?” Who’s going to college? Who has legacy? Who’s getting a career? Who’s going to have to go to college to get that career? What careers are favored and valued in our society? Who sets the prototype for what those careers would look like? Who has the access to the types of careers that are sustainable, professional, and valuable to our society?

These questions surely complicate Robert Reich’s piece, and necessarily so.

He says that we continue to force kids through a funnel called the four-year college track, but, some of our kids are forced down  school-to-prison pipeline when they’re not forced down the four-year track. I would rather have high-schoolers choose their own path, and equip them with the skills to thrive regardless of what they choose. With wealth being one of the best (if not the best) predictors of SAT / ACT scores, one has to pay close attention to the ways in which we perpetuate systemic inequity by genuflecting to the current American capitalist zeitgeist.

In the middle of ripping apart the idea that everyone has to go to college, we should pay close attention to who does or doesn’t have to go to college and whether those jobs that do or don’t require college will be there for those with the least access points. Until then, my kids will keep hearing “college.”

p.s. – This essay on Kevin Carey’s book The End of College written by Audrey Watters and Sara Goldrick-Rab is so, so good.

photo c/o