Should Everyone Go to College?

Your mama do, but should everyone else? Reflexively, I think I would say yeah, and I’m sure most people would. But we’re also not the ones who have to grade English papers, like a certain anonymous adjunct professor who penned an essay for the Atlantic arguing that maybe we’re trying to be a little too democratic when it comes to higher ed.

America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in the papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades.

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

I am the man who has to lower the hammer.

Professor X makes a point to acknowledge that his students are ‘nontraditional,’ older and often juggling families and full-time jobs. Some are low-level medical staff who need certification to advance, others want to be police officers and require a minimum of college level coursework. And while said he hopes that, say, reading Invisible Man will make one of those potential officers less likely to indulge in racial profiling, he wonders whether that’s not baseless academic optimism.

There are a grip of y’all who teach college courses: Stacia, Tedra, K, Ari and Eric. I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this one.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • I haven’t taught adult ed. but I did TA and teach at a community college and my answer to this is a firm “No”. Not everyone should go to college. On this island where I live and work people tend to be extremely preoccupied with academic success. This is understandable since we are a developing nation with few exports and a tourism industry that is still being shaped. The best jobs (and the only ones with guaranteed pensions) tend to be in the civil service and increasingly these jobs require qualifications beyond a high school diploma. In addition to these there are also the so called “big jobs”: doctors, lawyers, engineers and the like.

    Many parents have high hopes for their children to hold one of these “big jobs”. Policy ensuring universal access to education until age 18 was not passed until 2002. People coming from depressed socioeconomic backgrounds want to see better lives for their children and to them, the opportunity for that lies in education. I agree with them to an extent. Both of my parents came from rural areas, had many siblings and parents who were labourers. Neither of them could afford to go to high school and I have no doubt that their lives would have been much different if they had. I can get behind the idea that everyone should go to grade school and complete high school. College is another kettle of fish entirely.

    Because of this push for jobs that require tertiary education and possibly advanced degrees everyone wants their kid to go to college regardless of their actual aptitudes or interests. While teaching I have encountered scored of students who would be better served by professional apprenticeships in other fields or technical and vocational training. It wasn’t that they weren’t intelligent – they simply weren’t good at critically analyzing the failure of the West Indian Federation or explaining the significance of Aime Cesaire to the Pan-Africanist movement. Moreover they had no real *desire* to do so. Like the author of the article I thought I was able to stir their interest in certain topics and thought we were getting somewhere but in the end many of them would just rather be doing something else and were trying to pass these courses because someone else was saying they *had* to.

  • Steve

    No, as a former pre-college coounselor…I think there should be a variety of educational offerings that don’t fall into the normative 4-year bachelors track… the problem is many vocational or short term programs that will benefit those whom traditional college would not be applicable are: a. Scams, b. Ineligible for federal aid, or c. cannot transfer to anywhere else and d. are massively overpriced.

    Therefore, many people are thrown into taking traditional college classes that they don’t do well in nor like…and don’t finish so its pretty much a waste of time.

    On the flip side, many high schools don’t prepare students analytically or critically for the type of work they will do in college because they assume most students at their schools will go the vocational/trade path…. and some students who might just be literary scholars…don’t have the fundamental background.

    I mean I could go on about this forever….

  • I am a college professor, an English professor in fact, and have to tell many many traditional, well-off kids from “good” schools that they aren’t prepared to do college work. What this highlights for me is not that some people don’t belong in college (though there are in fact many reasons why you wouldn’t or shouldn’t pursue a 4-year degree), but rather that K-12 education is failing a lot of kids. Regardless of your post-graduation plans, you should leave 12th grade knowing how to read, knowing how to think critically through problems, and knowing how to synthesize information. Those aren’t prerequisites for college. Those are prerequisites being an adult. We mi

  • LH

    I have been an adjunct lecturer (English, journalism) at two schools and agree with consuela.

    K-12 education is failing a lot of kids, but so, too, are parents.

    I believe that society is failing college graduates. I know too many people with at least four-year degrees who can’t find suitable work. When I was coming along, adults –even those who lacked a degree– would say, ‘If you go get that degree, everything will take care of itself.’ They couldn’t have known how wrong they’d be. I don’t believe, though, that this is the reason parents are failing their kids, along with schools. I think it’s apathy.

  • I am a K-12 educator in an American international school, and I have basically seen a wide variety of students enough to know that some of them shouldn’t be considering college as an option. I am also an English teacher and the same frustrations as to reading, writing and analysis levels persist at the K-12 level as they do to the college level. At our schools, sometimes students have rich parents who basically teach them to buy their way through life–and sometimes that’s exactly what happens. I have other students that just don’t have the capacity to analyze literature and readings as much as others–no matter how much you try to force them to “get” it. And then there are other students, who are just basically undisciplined. You can give them the low grades all you like (our private school even expells for academic reasons), but in the end all students have to find a future somewhere. The fact of the matter is that if a kid doesn’t get through high school, they don’t even survive. Period. Whether they can handle college or not is basically up to the consequences of the choices they made in high school. Vocation schools are not a sell-out. I have known some great kids that hated academia, but loved working with their hands, and they have ended up starting their own businesses and doing quite well for themselves. So the question “Are all students right for college,” I would say that our knowledge of how the brain works and its variations in so many different students should tell us that college isn’t right for everyone because it won’t meet every students’ needs and/or interests.

  • verdeluz

    “I explain, I give examples, I cheerlead, I cajole, but each evening, when the class is over and I come down from my teaching high, I inevitably lose faith in the task, as I’m sure my students do.”

    I routinely struggle with the seeming pointlessness of what I’m supposed to be doing. My students’ literacy levels in their first language are abysmally low. They’ve taken twelve years of a second language and the few things that they have learned have frequently been learned halfway or learned wrong. A good number of them don’t grasp what the first chapter of your average beginner-level book covers.

    My institution wants me to teach them to analyze various types of reading selections, to compose paragraphs for different audiences and purposes, and, although mine are reading and writing classes with no specific attention given to pronunciation, etc., to give oral presentations in their second language integrating the use of technology (a sizable majority doesn’t know how to use e-mail or a word processor- not surprisingly, that’s not part of what the courses are ‘supposed to cover’ either). If I think too much or too often about what is *supposed* to be happening, it can put me off balance for the better part of the semester. It’s difficult to communicate just how overwhelming it can be.

    My approach differs somewhat from that of the professor who wrote the article in that I may be more willing to make the education fit the student. Even with the cynical acknowledgment that the bottom line of modern education is more about money than it is about learning, I don’t think I have it in me to make it through a semester of teaching at a level so far beyond what my students are ready for just because ‘that’s my job’. My allegiance is really not to my employers or my institutional syllabus or some antiquated notion about the sanctity of academia- it’s to the people in my classroom. If we’re making progress and it doesn’t happen to be to the standards of the institution (which, by the way, is entirely aware of the issue but is intent on saving face by not admitting or addressing it)– emphatically: fuck it.

    The watering down of postsecondary degrees *has already happened*. Anybody incapable of seeing that is suffering from an at least partially self-serving delusion about what it means to be a professor. Consuela hit on my primary thought about how to answer the question posed by this post. In an ideal world, students would be equally and adequately prepared for the possibility of college long before the time came to think about filling out applications. Clearly, this isn’t an ideal world. Maybe it’s time for a paradigm shift, time to rethink what a college education is about/for. Instead of waiting in vain for that almost mythical bright-eyed, fully prepared, engaged, insightful, responsible student to show up in our hallways, we should consider the needs, both current and future, of the admittedly less-all-of-those-things kind we already have a little more seriously.

    I, for one, don’t really give a shit whether my nurse has read Balzac.

    (Man, I like to say Balzac.)

  • I wanted to touch on some of the things Consuela said but my reply was becoming epistle-like in length so I decided to cut it short. Definitely definitely DEFINITELY many students lack the skills required for college and it is because of the inadequate training they receive in grade and high school. Sadly one of the most daunting problems where I work now is children who don’t have sufficient literacy skills to get them through high school…much less college. Those of us who have noticed the trend have been asking about changing the structure of the curriculum, more adequately attending to the needs of students who need remediation but that always turns into a discussion about staffing, time and ultimately money. But let’s not start with my rant about *that*.

  • Grump

    No, not everybody is ready for college. The unfortunate things is that the other options besides college don’t bring the luster of a college degree. And THAT’S what people seem to be going for. Folks seem to be shooting high, but not thinking remotely practical once it seems as apparent that the individual lacks the skill set to go to college. Also, I believe that the the secondary levels of education need to be staffed with those teachers who can teach. But, we’re all fans of The Wire, so we know what obstacles lie ahead.

  • Tasha

    Attacking the problem at the end instead of the beginning?
    The entire school system needs an overhaul but I guess that’s too dificult so hey chuck the students.

  • I offer a sad no. I think everyone has the right and should have the opportunity to pursue post-secondary education. But alas, everyone is not “fit” for college. By fit I mean – have the academic foundation, the discipline of habit and thought to survive and matriculate. The problem is, many treat college like the gold standard and anything else is less than. Not true — but society doesn’t treat mechanics like doctors.

    On the same level – some people aren’t fit for trade school. same definition of fit. I just hate we’ve let being able to go to and graduate from college be a metric for people’s worth in life and society.

    As an academic, I practice not to be that way. I encourage others – especially high school counselors – to do the same.

  • Greetings-

    Among other things, I actually am an adjunct professor at two community colleges in MD and I am sad to say that the article speaks to a very sad truth. My students vary in age, mostly depending on the class time. Usually the younger students are during the day, with the non-traditional aged students in the evening courses. I love teaching, especially the older students who bring a great deal of life experience to the table. If I could grade on verbal dynamics, content and participation, my job would be so much easier. As a composition teacher however, I have to require a certain number of essays to meet the course requirement. As much as I love to teach, I HATE grading papers. It has gotten so bad that when friends call and I tell them I’m grading they apologize and offer to buy me a drink later. It has gotten so bad, I wait until the last possible weekend before I have to return the papers, to grade them. It’s like watching a train wreck and then some. Hardly anyone has a thesis anymore and I am constantly being asked by sad-faced students who get there purple Ds back, “What do you mean by analyze?” Grammar is so bad at times that the question, “What exactly are you saying?” is often scattered 4-6 times throughout a 3-5 page essay.

    My favorite is the email language that inevitably ends up in a paper like, “Poe is interesting because he make u feel like ur in the work.” or “In order 2 understand the essay we have 2 think differently.” Besides me screaming “WTF” out loud while reading these papers, I am left to wonder at the state of the so-called higher educational system. When students get the papers back, they are devastated because up until me, they have been left with the impression that they are good writers. I am the “hard grader” because I grade for grammar AND content. Go figure.

    Does it mean we should restrict access to college? I don’t think so, but we do need re-evaluate what the role of college and how we teach students. Not everyone is a writer, but I believe that everyone should be able to write in standard English. We are living in a global world , where English is for many not their first language, but the language the do business in and we have students born in this country that can’t write complete sentences! From the requirements to the grading system, there needs to be more of an effort to teach and not simply “pass”” students through just for the sake of doing so, which happens a lot more than people realize on the college level. All in all the difference between what happens over “their” versus what happens “hear” can be the difference between and “A” and an “F”. We need to take the educating of our citizens more seriously.

  • I don’t teach, but I do think I know something about higher education considering I’m working on a graduate degree in the field.

    Enough with the credentials, I don’t think everyone should go to college. Nor is college for everyone. And then you have people who simply don’t like school (this may not be so simple as they may have been screwed over all through their K-12 education that they’re done with it as soon as education is no longer compulsory). There are some people who don’t need a college degree to attain their goals. However, I do think that college prep education in high school should be the standard. Schools should also offer vocational classes as electives.

    What troubles me is that typically it’s the poor, first generation and lots of students from Latino, black and Native American backgrounds that are told they’re not fit for college. They’re also the ones who disproportionately go to the crappier schools that won’t adequately prepare them for college.

  • My answer is both yes, everyone should, and no, everyone shouldn’t.

    The case for “everyone should”: ime, nontraditional students are usually better students than traditionals. They’re motivated, they make fewer excuses, they’re better critical thinkers, they have time management skills. It’s the critical thinking, especially, that makes all the difference to me. Give me a student who has problems with standard grammar but who knows that the world’s a little more complicated than “poor people just need to budget money better and work harder” any day over a kid who can write paragraphs and paragraphs of trite nonsense in flawless grammar. What breaks my heart is the nontrads who don’t do as well as they could/should because they’re too busy working full-time jobs, raising families, and commuting. Free education for everyone, man.

    The case for “everyone shouldn’t”: a LOT of jobs that “require” college degrees . . . really don’t. And a lot of people without college degrees are as smart/experienced as a lot of kids just out of college. The biggest problem with college education is the way that companies use it as credentialism. Students know this and behave accordingly (as do institutions), and you get all sorts of people who don’t give a shit about learning but are just trying to fill the “college education” line on their resumes. The problem is that we, as a society, view those who haven’t gone to college as “stupid” and “low class”. We need to not be fucking doing that bigoted shit.


    I have taught both remedial and freshman-level math courses and the answer is a definite no. I have had students in both who cannot consistently do basic arithmetic with fractions (which is introduced at some point in elementary school), yet I am expected to teach these same students the basic linear algebra and calculus. The idea is preposterous. I am not only amazed that these people are in college (and someone’s actually paying money for this person to go), but astounded that they have high school diplomas.