What do we mean when we talk about “going to college?” The answer is that we mean many different things. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with that. Our higher education system is vast and varied. But in practice, the definition deficit can be a problem when it comes to public discussion of postsecondary education. Too often, we just talk past one other.
Here’s the example I’ve had in mind lately: Commentators, including some of my esteemed The Quick and the Ed co-bloggers, often fret that young people in high school are being funneled into traditional academic institutions when they would be better off pursuing practical, career-oriented alternatives such as apprenticeships. The college-for-all movement, according to this line of argument, sets up too many students for failure when a wider array of post-graduation options would help them obtain training more appropriate to their interests and abilities—and more suited for our workforce needs.
But this notion that we must choose between college and vocational prep, which dogs discussions about broadening postsecondary access, is really a false dichotomy. The idea that high school students should be offered a range of academic and vocational options, in school and beyond, is not, I think, particularly controversial, though it comes with risks. Like others, I worry that late bloomers, or bright but disengaged students, or teens who school officials just don’t see as college material, will be steered toward vocational tracks that may not offer the long-term promise and flexibility of traditional degrees.
But let’s stipulate that a greater number of purposeful career-oriented options would be helpful and attractive to many students. What skeptics of the access agenda often miss, when they declare knowingly that not everyone is cut out for college, is just how much vocational education already exists within the very large umbrella of our postsecondary system. Again, the question is what exactly we mean by the word college.
Consider our land-grant institutions, established in the second half of the 19th century with the explicit goal of providing more practical educational options for a fast-growing nation. Today, Iowa State undergrads can major in fields like animal science, among many other agriculturally themed concentrations. Throughout the nation, it’s completely unremarkable for undergrads to specialize in subjects like accounting, forensics, hotel management, and physical education.
Plato around a seminar table this ain’t. Yes, these four-year degrees typically require an academic grounding in a range of basic subjects under the heading “general education.” Still, they are often overlooked by critics who imply that going to college will involve some kind of rarefied education that just won’t serve many students.
Community colleges, of course, are still more likely to offer practical coursework — in some cases combined with apprenticeships, internships, and the like — of just the kind that college skeptics say ought to be made more widely available because of their practical value. One- and two-year certificates in nursing and other healthcare fields, for example, are particularly valuable on the job market. Isn’t this a form of vocational ed?
Another example: I read the other day in the Washington Post about West Virginia chef Richard Rosendale, who is competing next year in the Bocuse d’Or, a high-powered global culinary competition. It turns out that he earned his associate degree from the culinary program at Westmoreland County Community College. So it appears that he wasn’t shut out of career-oriented educational options. Moreover, he probably had to complete a number of classes that would have held him in good stead on his path to becoming executive chef of the Greenbrier resort.
The current requirements for the degree Rosendale earned include not only baking, beverage management, and so forth, but also college writing, microcomputer concepts, social science or math, and more. Students also work many hours as apprentices in restaurants, hotels, or resorts. This culinary arts program obviously doesn’t yield a traditional four-year degree. Nor is it designed primarily to send students on to earn bachelor’s degrees. But it combines practical classroom instruction, an out-of-the-classroom apprenticeship, and classes that focus on some core skills that could prove useful to students in many settings.
Programs like these are very much part of the nation’s postsecondary system. They’re the kind of educational pathways we should keep in mind when we hear ill-advised rhetoric about how too many people go to college. If we define college broadly— and why shouldn’t we? — there’s plenty of room for more Americans to benefit from post-high school education. The idea that anybody is advocating traditional four-year academic degrees for the entire population is a straw man. We shouldn’t let it distract us from the continuing, and vitally important, national discussion about expanding postsecondary opportunity — in all the forms it takes.
Photo Credit: Daniel Acker, Bloomberg News