The growing prevalence of this expression came as a surprise to me. After all, the promise of higher education has been a central precept of American life since World War II. It is what drew my parents to the United States, and in my household, like in those of so many immigrant families, college is synonymous with opportunity. So what changed?
In my conversations with those who hold this belief, it inevitably turns out that not only did they themselves go to college, but they also intend for their children to do the same. This response leads me to ask: If college was for you and for your children, who is it not for? I ask because as a cancer-surviving, fully blind Iranian-American from a mixed-religion immigrant family, there were many who doubted I was “college material.”
It is elitist to suggest that some students are not destined for learning beyond high school.
But college was for me, as were graduate school and law school. What allowed me to access those educational opportunities was a combination of growing up in an environment with parents and teachers who saw my potential and encouraged me, and having the resources to pursue the goals on which I set my sights. This environment—this college-going culture—is what we need to create for every student. It is a matter of economic reality and social justice.
Americans with a bachelor’s degree will, on average, earn twice as much as their high school graduate peers over the course of a lifetime. What’s more, jobs that require only a high school diploma have been steadily disappearing over the last 30 years, a trend that has accelerated since the 2008 financial crisis.
In a 2016 report the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found that of the 7.2 million jobs lost in the recession, 78 percent required a high school diploma, and of the 11.6 million jobs created since, over 99 percent have gone to workers with a college education. The jobs created during the recovery are not the same jobs that were destroyed in the recession. Accordingly, they require different skills, including communication, critical thinking and analytical reasoning. These hallmarks of a college education are the best safeguards against the disruptive forces of globalization and automation. A failure to expand access to higher education will widen the gap between the fortunate few and the disenfranchised many.
Some say it’s elitist to point this out. On the contrary, it is elitist to suggest that some students are not destined for learning beyond high school, particularly when the students who are most often dismissed as “not college material” are students of color, students with disabilities, and students from rural and impoverished areas. Instead, policymakers should afford every American the same educational opportunities we want for our own children.
A failure to expand access to higher education will widen the gap between the fortunate few and the disenfranchised many.
Now, does this mean that every student needs to spend four years studying existential philosophy in some ivy-covered quadrangle? Absolutely not. College degrees should run the gamut from traditional liberal arts programs to more applied technical subject areas. But in order to effectively prepare students for a rapidly changing labor market, post-secondary learning needs to offer more than narrow vocational training in a technical craft.
We must expand the college-going culture. We must instill in kids, at at early age, the belief that they can and will go to college. High schools should increase dual-credit opportunities such as Running Start, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate to allow students to build momentum and earn college credit while in high school and save money later. Governments must make the financial aid system more comprehensible in the near term and make long-term investments in need-based tuition assistance. Colleges should create more high-quality online degree programs so that working adults who must balance employment demands, child care needs and transportation challenges can complete a degree. And we should reward colleges not based on how selective they are, but rather on how successfully they admit and educate those who are the first in their families to attend college.
At a time when economic inequality threatens to leave an entire generation of Americans behind, we must reject the outdated idea that “college isn’t for everyone” and work urgently to prove that just the opposite is true.