Petrilli's Folly

Who Needs College, Anyway...

Michael Petrilli's latest salvo against the education establishment is to shout down the "College for All" mantra that many reformers who have worked with Petrilli have taken to chanting.  In his piece in Slate magazine earlier this month, Petrilli begins with Georgetown's Anthony Carnevale's finding that "less than 10 percent of poor children now graduate with a four-year college degree."

The class-based inequality of higher education outcomes is indeed staggering, but Petrilli claims we are making matters worse when we tell children they can, should and must go to college, even if the facts show our admonitions to be, essentially, falsehoods.

He argues that a kid in 9th grade who can barely pass 6th grade math, is reading at 5th grade level and finds little joy and less stimulation in school should be told "you're just not college material, kid."  By forcing him or her to struggle through three more years of increasingly rigorous coursework we are, in fact, preventing that youth from learning skills necessary for  "high-quality career and technical education," skills with a "real payoff."  

Kevin Welner and Carol Burris fired back a response in the Washington Post, arguing that if college is good enough for middle-class and upper-middle class folks, it's good for the poor too.  The only route to a high-paying job in this economy is through college gates and to track students into non-college training is, in effect, to give up on American democracy.

I wholeheartedly agree with Welner and Burris, but there's another problem:  Petrilli's argument takes "college" to be a static entity -- students and professors laboring behind ivy-covered walls, as they have for hundreds of years. reading books, writing papers and doing chem labs.  But higher education is in the midst of an enormous transformation, one that has college presidents running scared that technology will upset their business model and students will learn on their own.  

The fears are overblown (largely because it turns out no one really learns very much via on-line courses, unless they have a college degree), but there will be major transformations of higher education over the next few years.  These changes gives us an occasion to rethink what college is, hopefully in creative and adaptive ways.

Many states have already done that indirectly and destructively, with states disinvesting in higher education, shrinking areas of study, and through a scarcity of resources forcing a re-definition of what colleges can and might do.  

But we need to also re-invent college in positive ways -- maybe even creating new forms of higher education, ones that innovate and develop new techniques of delivering technical training that really is tied to high-paying jobs, or creating new K-16 partnerships in which college and high school is fused, so that kids can see the kind of independence and creativity that comes when you engage in deep learning.  

Telling a kid, "you're not college material," fundamentally misses the point:  Colleges themselves in a few short years will no longer be college material -- but, hopefully, in a good way.  They still will demand the skills that are the prerequisites of learning, but they will have students exercise those skills in new ways and in new contexts.  High schoolers in lower-level tracks without sufficient content and that do not build essential skills will lose out in the New College, just as those institutions will become the real sources of high quality career and technical training. 

The objective for high schoolers -- and for the teachers, counselors, and parents who advise them -- should be to learn how to learn, because every high school graduate needs to leave high school prepared to adapt, think creatively, understand novel situations and solve problems.  New college contexts and systems will demand it, and they will require students to be college material.  I'm just glad Michael Petrilli is not a high school counselor.