I want to use this piece from the AP about higher education as a jumping-off point for a wider discussion about the need for and forms higher education ought to take in this country.
From a personal perspective, it might be wise for me to argue alongside what the article's headline seems to, when it mischaracterizes President Obama's call for continuing education as "college for all." After all, I work in college education, and the more people in college, the more opportunity I have to advance in my career. In fact, what President Obama said in his speech was that, as the AP put it, "a high-school diploma is not enough and urged each American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training, whether it be a community college or a four-year school, vocational training or an apprenticeship." Bolding mine because I think that part of the discussion has gotten overlooked far too often.
Part of the problem is that high school education has become too much like a bad college prep program, one that teaches students how to take standardized tests instead of how to think their way through problems. There are a huge number of reasons for this, but the primary one, in my opinion, is that teachers at all levels are overloaded with work and can't actually teach classes because they're too busy riding herd on 25-30 kids at any given time. If you want teachers to actually be able to pass along information and the ability to use it, you have to limit class sizes to 12-15 kids at a time.
The next thing that has to be done is a rethinking of the point of high school and the expectations we have for a high school diploma. President Obama was correct when he noted that failure to finish high school or an equivalency program is no longer a real option in today's economy, but how many marginal high school students are really prepared to enter that economy even if they do get a diploma? If we're going to tell our citizens that finishing high school is important, we need to make a high school education mean something more than poor prep for a future some aren't likely to pursue in the first place, which is where vocational training and apprenticeships come into play.
For all the talk about how the future of our economy is a creative one, the fact is that there will always be a need for people to do skilled physical labor, which won't require a college education. And while we're at it, we need to stop fetishizing the college education as a good unto itself. Wanting to explore the life of the mind--which only a minority of college students want to do in the first place--does not necessarily make one a better person, nor is a college education required to make that exploration.
So if we're honest and acknowledge that a certain percentage of our population isn't going to be interested in college, even assuming they're fully prepared by our K-12 system, then how do we keep those non-college attenders from becoming a permanent underclass? We can start by focusing on the vocational and apprenticeship options in high school. Lots of people I went to high school with had no intention of going to college--they started taking classes at the Vo-Tech while in high school and had jobs as mechanics and HVAC techs and so on and are now happy members of the middle class (albeit the lower end of President Obama's formulation, the high end being families that make $250K a year). Let's start honoring those choices by not treating any kid who doesn't want to enter a four-year institution as some sort of loser, and let's stop acting like every kid in high school has those sorts of aspirations. Let's target educational resources into various tracks, like we have in the past--if you want to be a mechanic, then after age 16 you can start training for that job under the auspices of your high school education. Big cities often do this already with specialized high school programs in culinary arts among others. Lets expand that so that students who want to go to college get that sort of education and those who want to go into the workforce can do that. Make their educations relevant to their lives.
And finally, let's actually fund schools, not only at the K-12, but also at the vocational/technical levels and at the university levels so that teachers can actually do a good job. In a piece Malcolm Gladwell wrote for the New Yorker (and which I criticized roundly here), he noted that if you cut class sizes in half, you turn an average teacher into one in the 85th percentile. He looked at that as a negative--that the better solution was to simply find better teachers--but for me that makes the most sense. If all you have to do to make an average teacher a good one is reduce their workload, then do it, even if it costs more. The increased benefits from a smarter populace will more than pay for the extra educational costs.
But the one thing we can't afford to do is keep doing what we've been doing, acting like college is the answer for everyone--it isn't, and there's nothing wrong with acknowledging that, unless we buy into the idea that there's something inherently superior about a college degree, and there isn't. I'm willing to bet that everyone knows someone without a degree who they think is more intelligent and curious about the world than George W. Bush, and he has two of them.