Diploma with a side of fries

Should students in the bottom 50 percent of their class even bother going to college?

Published October 28, 2008 3:30PM (EDT)

While a good portion of my rage at the current state of education is often reserved for the ludicrous lengths that certain parents will go to ensure their spawn beat down the competition for a place at a school they hope will cement their child's place among the ruling class, an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education managed to draw my ire.

According to college counselor and author Marty Nemko, the real problem is that four-year colleges are filled with too many students who should actually be enrolled at the vocational-tech school down the road, if they go anywhere at all. The "saddest" cases he sees as a career counselor are the kids who weren't good students in high school but decide to go to college anyway to "prove" that they can be the first in their family to do so. These kids, he says, eventually end up in his office lamenting, "It's been five years and $80,000, and I still have 45 credits to go."

This is typical, says Nemko, for the "killer statistic" is that "among high school students who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their class and whose first institutions were four year colleges, two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later." Apparently, it's part of a nefarious plot: "Four year colleges admit and take money from hundreds and thousands of such students each year!" Damn those admissions officers willing to admit subpar students!

These college dropouts, he says, leave school "having learned little of value" with a "mountain of debt" and "devastated self-esteem." What's more, he points out, after spending their "family's life savings," "many" graduates and non-graduates end up taking jobs they could have gotten as plain old high school dropouts -- tending bar, waiting tables, driving taxis, etc. He then goes on to present dismal statistics about the ways in which both high schools and colleges fail their students and concludes that, like Firestone Tires, academic institutions should be punished when they turn out "defective products."

Look, I can rage with the best of them about the right -- and I do think it's a right -- to good, affordable education. And while student loans can feel like a "mountain of debt" -- I'd surely prefer not to be still paying mine off at 35 -- I'm actually having a hard time picturing the typical first-generation-to-go-to-college kid blazing through her "family's life savings." I'm not saying it doesn't happen sometimes. But having known quite a few first-generation college kids -- including my boyfriend and most of my daughter's friends, who are college sophomores right now and spend a lot of time lurking around our apartment -- I'd say that most of these kids get pretty generous need-based aid (from those nefarious colleges out to take their money!).

And I'm not at all convinced that people leave college having learned "little of value" just because they haven't gotten all their credits for graduation. That class in economics or classical guitar or that critical essay on immigration and discrimination probably means something, even if you are still working for tips.

But what really pisses me off is Nemko's advice to parents: "If your child's high school grades and test scores are in the bottom half for his class, resist the attempts of four year colleges to woo him. Colleges make money whether or not a student learns, whether or not she graduates, and whether or not he finds good employment. Let the buyer beware." Presumably, this whole gratuitous college admissions officer as predatory lender analogy is aimed at those parents who expect a guaranteed monetary return on their investment.

Instead, he says, these kids -- 50 percent of graduating seniors! -- do not belong in four-year colleges at all, but instead should consider community college, vocational school, the military or apprenticeships. I'm not knocking any of these career paths. But as a parent who has spent plenty of time with wickedly smart teenagers who nevertheless struggled to get through high school, I am fiercely protective of the kids lurking in the bottom of the class.

Let's face it: The kids at the top of the class include the kids who follow the rules, the kids who go to college because, in their social class, that's just what you do, a smattering of reckless geniuses and original thinkers, and a bunch of generally smart, motivated kids. In the bottom half, you'll have the kids who don't follow the rules, the kids who won't go to college because in their class that's just not what you do, a smattering of reckless geniuses and original thinkers who might find high school boring and bureaucratic, and a bunch of kids who genuinely would be much happier getting the hell away from academia and learning any number of trades. But to pretend one can discern those who "deserve" to go to college from those who do not by lopping a whole class of kids off at the center, to borrow a recent political metaphor, is like using a hatchet when what you really need is a scalpel.


By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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