Goff: Should fewer students go to college?

Students walk through the Dowling College campus in

Students walk through the Dowling College campus in Oakdale. (Sept. 27, 2012) (Credit: Chris Ware)

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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is clearly not afraid to court controversy. He has fought for bans on smoking and large sodas, despite his efforts sparking criticism and ridicule. The mayor has found himself provoking critics again with his comments earlier this month about which students should attend college.

During his regular radio show, he said the following: "The people who are going to have the biggest problem are college graduates who aren't rocket scientists, if you will, not at the top of their class." He continued, "Compare a plumber to going to Harvard College -- being a plumber, actually, for the average person probably would be a better deal ... You don't spend ... four years spending $40,000, $50,000, in tuition without earning income."

It is worth noting that the mayor's oldest daughter attended Harvard University. No word on whether or not she is a rocket scientist, which of course highlights precisely why the mayor's comments were picked up internationally and depicted as controversial. Intended or not, his comments denote that increasingly, college is becoming like a luxury good. Anyone from a rich family can attend, but only certain people who are not from privileged backgrounds should pursue a college degree.


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The mayor appears to have some unexpected allies on the topic. Though Bloomberg's gun control efforts often put him at odds with conservative Republicans, onetime presidential candidate Rick Santorum famously called President Obama an "elitist" for his efforts to steer so many Americans to college. But experts were ultimately divided on the mayor's fundamental point that too many students are being steered toward college unnecessarily.

As a testament to the explosion in the number of students now pursuing college educations, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, "undergraduate enrollment rose 37 percent between 2000 and 2010." So has student-loan debt. Debt incurred by students seeking to further their education has officially surpassed credit card debt and is nearly $1 trillion.

President Obama has spoken openly of his and the first lady's onetime student-loan debt and has made addressing the student-loan crisis one of his top priorities since being elected. His administration has worked to increase the amount of Pell Grants and decrease the percentage of income that borrowers are required to pay as part of their loan-repayment plan.

Inez Dickens, assistant deputy leader of the New York City Council, said that finding solutions to the student-loan crisis is key to solving the nation's education and employment crisis, not steering students away from college. When asked if she agreed with the mayor's comments, Dickens replied, "No. I think students should be given a choice so that those who want college should be given the opportunity, and they're not. Those who want to go shouldn't have to take out all of these loans."

She highlighted federal efforts to ease the burdens of student borrowers, such as legislation that would allow refinancing of student loans and lower interest rates that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., recently introduced.

Dickens did highlight another problem that other critics of Bloomberg's comments were quick to note: Pursuing certain trades can be as tough as financing a college education.

For instance, there have been ongoing struggles to increase the number of women and minorities who receive trade apprenticeships in areas such as construction and plumbing. This is not an issue specific to New York but a nationwide challenge. An analysis of government data in Wisconsin found that although minorities made up 25.9 percent of apprentice applicants, they were only 8.8 percent of active apprentices.

Another point raised by Dickens is that pursuing college versus a trade doesn't have to be an either-or proposition, with trades being a great option for a student working his way through college or saving up to attend college one day.

This perspective is shared by Scott Kemp, the director of a landmark program, Virginia's Community Colleges High School Career Coaches, that provides career coaches for high school students. Coaches begin meeting with some students in their freshman year and others in their sophomore or junior year and work with the students to identify what they enjoy doing, what they are good at and what their long-term goals are. They then inform the students of the employment prospects in the communities they are considering living in, both in the short and the long term, and based on that information help students formulate an educational and career plan.

"Rather than force kids to four-year colleges where they may not be ready, we look at it as a step-by-step approach," Kemp said. "A student may want a career that requires a bachelor's degree, but they may not be immediately ready." He went on to explain that if a student is pushed into a four-year institution before being ready and drops out, it is a loss for everyone, particularly that student, which is why the program eschews a one-size-fits-all method.

"We call it a career-pathways approach. The idea is not four-year college for everyone. It's a tailored approach for the student with what works best for where they are and what they want to do. So it could be that trade school, apprenticeship, two-year or four-year degree." The program exists in half of the public high schools in Virginia and has expanded to other states, including Louisiana, Alabama, California and Wisconsin. There are efforts to introduce the program even earlier, to students in junior high, though critics have questioned whether adult goals should be placed on middle school students.

According to a report, millennials -- those born after 1981 -- value money and fame more than previous generations. When asked if concerns about image steer more young people toward costly college degrees and away from potentially higher-paying blue-collar professions, Kemp noted that often parents set the tone for what young people value. If parents hold a college degree, they may strongly influence their kids to do the same. Sometimes, if parents always aspired to pursue higher education but couldn't, they may be hesitant to see a son or daughter miss out on a degree as well, despite the cost.

Kemp referenced a cartoon he recently received from a colleague that depicted someone saying they chose going to university over a two-year apprenticeship so that they would have a nice diploma hanging in Mom and Dad's basement -- the point being that despite having a fancy degree, the student could only afford to live at home. Seeming to echo Bloomberg's point, Kemp elaborated that if a student graduates from the University of Virginia with a philosophy degree, he may end up working at Starbucks after graduation, whereas if a student trains to become an automotive technician, he may end up earning higher than the national average in his first year of employment.

When asked specifically about Bloomberg's comments, Kemp said, "I don't agree that every kid should go to college." But, he added, "I believe college should be an opportunity for every student." One expert vehemently disagreed, however, with Bloomberg's thesis. Juan Gilbert, a computer scientist, whose software Applications Quest is used by college-admissions officers seeking diverse student bodies, said, "I don't think the solution is to reduce the number of students going to college. I think it's the opposite. We need more students in areas of national need. I do recognize we need strategies to address the rising cost of college and the severe amount of debt that students are generating."

Gilbert went on to note that our country is facing a desperate shortage of students educated in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). When asked if too many students were being steered to college unnecessarily, he replied, "Ask Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Facebook, Google, etc. I believe the answer is a unanimous 'no.'"

Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent.

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