A Misdirected Push: College for All?

by Richard Rothstein

Well-meaning experts now insist that all students should prepare to attend college. They say college is needed to land good jobs and contend schools fail disadvantaged youth in particular who lack the qualifications and motivation for academic colleges.

This belief is based on two misunderstood statistics. First is that the fastest-growing jobs in the “new economy” require a college education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects, for example, that from 2004 to 2014, software engineering jobs, requiring bachelor’s degrees, will grow by 43 percent while factory-based, metal-working jobs will decline by 4 percent.

Poorly understood, however, is that computer jobs grow from a small base, while factory jobs shrink from a larger one. Most retirees still must be replaced. The next decade will offer more than three times the job openings in metal working than in software engineering.

The second misunderstood statistic is that the college-wage premium — the college graduate to high school graduate wage ratio — is increasing. But supply and demand is only one factor influencing relative wages. The college premium can increase, for example, if the minimum wage’s value falls, as in recent years. Because high school graduates’ wages are influenced by the minimum, its declining value can make the college-to-high school wage ratio rise, even with no shortage of college graduates.

The same happens when other supports for working class wages atrophy. Less unionization also boosts the college wage premium. In fact, real wages of college graduates have increased little in recent decades, although the college wage premium has grown. Some college graduates’ wages have increased, but mostly in managerial and sales jobs. New scientists’ wages actually have fallen, suggesting no shortage.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that only 29 percent of future openings will require a bachelor’s degree, matching the college graduate share of the current workforce. Another 26 percent may need community college. The rest will require only on-the-job training. The new economy still needs retail salespersons, truck drivers, health care aides, janitors and waitresses. Over the next decade, there will be 12 million openings for professionals, but 13 million for service workers. Even with immigration, many must be filled by native-born Americans.

More disadvantaged students should be prepared to compete for the professional vacancies, requiring more of them to get the academic background to succeed in college. Currently, low-scoring students from upper-income families are more likely to complete college than high-scoring students from low-income families so improving access to college is imperative. But deluding ourselves that all young people can succeed in college, if only high schools do better, undermines the task of identifying the brightest disadvantaged students who, with proper motivation and training, can excel.

Technical Prep
Exaggerated beliefs about job needs can have dire results. Almost all high school seniors say they will go to college. Two-thirds of high school graduates enroll, but only one-third get bachelor’s degrees. Another 15 percent finish community college.

Some say that without college, young people will be “flipping hamburgers.” But many good jobs — computer and health technicians, equipment repair or finance personnel — demand only vocational or on-the-job training. If all races and social classes had similar aspirations, then even in middle-class suburbs, many students should incline to technical careers.

But middle-class parents won’t hear of it. Youngsters are guided to universities even when they would benefit more from technical training.

In less-affluent communities too, efforts to help minority students get into technical programs are resist-ed by parents who believe university education is now essential. Many students then drop out of college to take worse jobs than they could have gotten with proper training. We need to encourage the vast non-college-educated population to gain skills for better jobs.

Of course, job readiness is not the best reason for college. But today’s push to prepare all students to attend does not arise from concern for their moral, cultural or intellectual growth. It stems from vocational myths.

Better Access
This will be tough to fix because it's worse to aim too low than too high. Counselors may confuse ability with race and class, tracking academically talented minority youth to vocational programs or workplaces.

But sending everyone to college is no solution. We should guide fewer students to it while ensuring that higher education is more accessible to the disadvantaged. We need more, better trained, school counselors and well-designed career education, not distorted by the myth that all jobs require the same academic skills.

And to serve the 70 percent of young people who will not have professional jobs, we should be advocates for increasing the support that labor market institutions — such as the minimum wage and labor unions — can provide to most workers, even in the 21st century.

Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute, 1333 H St., N.W., Washington, DC 20005. E-mail: riroth@epi.org