College For...All/Some/Most/Few?

Terrific essay by Sarah Carr in Wilson Quarterly. 

It's about the College For All ethic.  And it relates to some of my favorite people.  Bob Schwartz of Harvard, a mentor, is juxtaposed with charters like KIPP in NOLA.  I don't agree with all of it, but I think the questions posed are really important. 

It begins:

At New Orleans charter schools, even students in the primary grades sometimes start the day with rousing chants professing their commitment to college. “This is the way, hey!/ We start the day, hey!/ We get the knowledge, hey!/To go to college!” kids shout. During several years writing about the remaking of the school system since Hurricane Katrina, I have heard high school teachers remind students to wash their hands before leaving the restroom because otherwise they might get sick, which might cause them to miss class, which would leave them less prepared for college. College flags and banners coat the walls and ceilings of schools across the city. College talk infuses the lessons of even the youngest learners. College trips expose older kids to campuses around the country.

Carr makes several observations.  I'm clipping together below 5 sentences from her article:

1. At schools that have embraced the college-for-all aspiration, career and technical education is seen as being as outdated as chalkboards and cursive handwriting.

2. Applying the college-for-all ethos in a top-down fashion in low-income communities of color creates the risk of being more imperialistic than egalitarian.  But emphasizing career and technical education can do another kind of harm, simply because of the dismal state of many programs.

3. “This very good idea that all kids need a strong academic underpinning morphed into the idea that all kids need to be prepared to attend a four-year college,” says Robert Schwartz, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He doesn’t think the two ideas are necessarily the same.

4. TFA members and recent alums founded several of the charter schools and charter networks, such as KIPP (the Knowledge Is Power Program), that dominate in post-Katrina New Orleans and are the most strident, best-known backers of the college-for-all—or at least college for far more—movement.

5. Some studies have shown that only about one-third of low-income students who start college earn bachelor’s degrees by their mid-twenties; the large majority who drop out are left, in many cases, with thousands of dollars in debt.

My thoughts:

1. Mostly I agree with her.  College For All does not make sense as a policy objective, for many reasons.  Bob Schwartz's paper, in my view, was right on target.  Moreover, I share the fear that in some cases, college is a bad economic bet. 

Read by my blog called College: a Lifetime of Debt with Diminishing ROI.

And read this one, too. 

College For All?  For Real? 

Finally, Dai Ellis here: Rethinking the Charter Mission

While I agree with her that College For All is not a smart state or national education policy, there's a very different question of whether College For All makes sense as the mission of a single school.  There I strongly believe yes.

In Boston, many traditional high schools describe themselves as college prep, but they're sort of half-hearted about it.  Few alums actually graduate from college.  College rah-rah is absent.  But so is career rah-rah.  There is no rah-rah.  I'm not sure how Carr thinks about such schools.

2. Does a typical parent in an urban school district -- a single mom who is not a college grad, is poor, and is black or Hispanic -- want college for her kid? 

In Boston, I think so.  I don't think it's "imperialist."  There was some research some years back surveying parents of 9th graders at some of the large open-admissions high schools here.  Ie, the most typical respondent was a black or Hispanic single parent without a college degree.  And upwards of 80% of them wanted their high school son or daughter to go on to college.  Similarly high numbers of students reported expecting to attend college.  Now these kinds of surveys, who knows, the question phrasing matters. 

3. I'm not sure I agree that educators in urban college prep charters, see career and technical education as "outdated."  Some staff believe that, for sure.  But most?  Not sure what the evidence there is.  Survey of charter teachers and leaders? 

I think more typically -- there's a perception that the vo-tech offerings themselves are terrible, with really bad track record of actually connecting kids to the right jobs, the air-conditioning repair jobs that Carr writes about.  

Boston's vo-tech high school is considered by far the worst public school in the city.  We'd love to send kids to good career and technical programs.  We actively encourage it among some of our alums. 

At Match, we have considered -- we think about many ideas, follow through on just a few -- trying to launch an excellent vocational charter school, and measure performance precisely on how our kids would grow up to do in the job market. 

But perhaps Match is an outlier here in terms of our belief that a good vocational education would be awesome for kids, and we just don't know it; perhaps Carr is correct that more typical college-prep charters are staffed with people who have low opinions of high-quality technical education. 

4. To bring down the college "risk" -- an excellent point by Sarah Carr -- Match is, for the first time, helping our grads enroll in more 2-year community colleges with explicit path to transfer after 2 years.  To the point where kids say "I'm going to Bunker Hill College to study X, then I'll transfer as a junior to U-Mass." 

I'm hopeful that this experiment increases or holds constant our 4 year college graduation rate, while reducing debt for our alums who don't make it to the 4 year degree finish line.  If Student A attends community college for 2 years and then University of Massachusetts for 2 more, she finishes with far less debt and the same degree than Student B who attends UMass all 4 years.  

A risk, though, is that because community colleges have such low graduation rates overall, there may be a "peer effect" which normalizes dropping out. 

We shall see.  Tough puzzle.