College Isn't for Everyone

In our quest to get more impoverished kids into college, have we actually doomed them to a life of greater poverty?

Annie Holmquist | April 4, 2016

In our quest to get more impoverished kids into college, have we actually doomed them to a life of greater poverty?

The best way to help a kid climb out of poverty and into the middle class is through a college education, right? At least, that’s what we've been told.

But in our quest to get more impoverished kids into college, have we actually doomed them to a life of greater poverty?

That’s a question explored by Michael Petrilli in a piece for the Brookings Institution. He notes that:

“The academic-dominated approach is not working, especially for economically disadvantaged students. Of this group, about 20 percent of teenagers don’t graduate from high school at all. Of those who do graduate, about half matriculate to some form of college. But many are not ready: two-thirds of low-income students at community colleges start in remedial classes.

Here’s where things really fall apart. Only a third of community college students who start in remedial courses complete a credential within six years. Forty percent don’t ever get beyond the remedial stage.

The common outcome of our current strategy—‘bachelor’s degree or bust’—is that a young person drops out of college at age 20 with no post-secondary credential, no skills, and no work experience, but a fair amount of debt. That’s a terrible way to begin adult life, and it’s even worse if the young adult aims to escape poverty.”

Instead of pushing everyone toward college, Petrilli believes we need to revisit the idea of technical education and certification, not only for those in the college years, but for high school students, as well. As the chart below shows, vocational education may not bring in the biggest salary in the world, but it definitely can raise students above the poverty line, leaving them with little or no college debt.

That certainly seems to be the case for Kevin Joyner, a 20-year-old apprenticeship student recently featured in USA Today. Although he came from “a troubled home environment in a distressed neighborhood,” Joyner is excelling in his apprenticeship and is “on track to earn a starting salary of $35,000 to $50,000 as a computer technician.”

If we truly want to help lift people out of poverty, is it time to recognize that the one-size-fits-all education system is simply not the solution?



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