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A Guide to College-for-All
The American education system reached a notable landmark in 2020: For the first time, half of 25-to-29-year-olds had earned at least an associate’s degree. On one hand, that might appear cause for celebration. The figure had marched steadily higher, from 37% in 2005 to 41% in 2010 to 46% in 2015 to now exactly 50%. On the other hand, this record is perhaps best viewed in the negative. Fully half of young adults still do not earn even an associate’s degree, and many of those who do earn one achieve it only through an agonizing process of fits and starts, accrue significant debt along the way, and still land in jobs that do not require a degree. Our education system is designed almost exclusively to produce college graduates, and for the most part it fails.
America’s decision to place all its eggs in the college attendance basket is perhaps most obvious in the rhetoric of leaders like former President Barack Obama, who once asked a group of students, “How many students here expect to go to college?” and then said to the adults in the room, “I expect all of them to raise their hand.” Our funding decisions also make it clear: We send hundreds of billions of dollars annually toward higher education while slowly starving noncollege pathways of support. This was an intentional choice and one that differs dramatically from the model embraced in most developed economies, where noncollege pathways enjoy equitable support. But it wasn’t quite America’s decision. More specifically, it was a decision made by a small group of professional educators and policymakers who are themselves a product of the college pipeline, operating in a bubble of successful college graduates, supported by college-educated parents who expect the same for their own children.
By contrast, most Americans reject the college-for-all model. As the American Compass Failing on Purpose Survey shows, parents do not believe that everyone can succeed in college. By almost ten-to-one, they want high schools to “offer students different pathways based on their aptitudes and interests” rather than “set a goal of bringing all students along to the same end point, which is typically preparation for college.” Thinking about their own children, most would prefer the offer of a three-year apprenticeship after high school to the offer of free college.
Nowhere else in American life is the allocation of public resources so misaligned with the needs and preferences of the American people. Rebalancing public education to allocate a fair share of resources toward noncollege pathways should be a top priority for any policymaker who wants to help more Americans build good lives for themselves and their families.