WASHINGTON — It’s an article of faith in the school reform community that we should be striving to prepare all students for success in college — if not a four-year degree, then some other recognized and reputable post-secondary credential. The rationale is clear and generally compelling; as a recent Pew study reiterated, people who graduate from college earn significantly more than those who do not. Other research indicates that low-income students in particular benefit from college, becoming nearly three times more likely to make it into the middle class than their peers who earn some (or no) college credits. And it’s not just about money: College graduates are also healthier, more involved in their communities, and happier in their jobs.
Thus, in the reformers’ bible, the greatest sin is to look a student in the eye and say, “Kid, I’m sorry, but you’re just not college material.”
But what if such a cautionary sermon is exactly what some teenagers need? What if encouraging students to take a shot at the college track — despite very long odds of crossing its finish line — does them more harm than good? What if our own hyper-credentialed life experiences and ideologies are blinding us to alternative pathways to the middle class? Including some that might be a lot more viable for a great many young people? What if we should be following the lead of countries like Germany, where “tracking” isn’t a dirty word but a common-sense way to prepare teen-agers for respected, well-paid work?
Here’s a stark fact: According to research by Georgetown’s Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, less than 10 percent of poor children now graduate with a four-year college degree. Imagine that all of our reform efforts prove successful, from initiatives to bolster the prenatal health of disadvantaged babies, to high-quality early-childhood experiences, to dramatic improvements in K-12 education, to serious interventions and supports at the college level. Push the pedal to the metal and assume that nothing crashes. Where do we get? Maybe in the course of a generation, we could double the proportion of poor children making it to a college diploma. Tripling it would be a staggering accomplishment. Anything approaching that would be an enormous achievement, unprecedented in the annals of social progress. Yet that would still leave two-thirds or more of low-income youngsters needing another path if they’re truly going to access the middle class.