Despite my deep respect for Dr. Glenda Price, I was troubled when I read her recent guest commentary in Bridge on why college isn’t the right choice for everyone. I fundamentally agree with her thesis, but am concerned by the rhetoric. I think prominent Michigan leaders are framing this issue in a way that is damaging. Let’s rethink the way we use the word “college”.
As Price articulates, it is clear that postsecondary education is essential for most students. In fact, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce, 62 percent of all jobs in Michigan will require postsecondary education. However, her column conflates the word “college” with “university” – and I think there is a distinction, and one with an important difference. I am the first to argue that not every high school graduate should pursue a four-year degree – but it is dangerous to say that those who don’t aren’t college-bound.
A postsecondary educational program that results in a valuable credential is precisely the definition of “college.” College is the umbrella term for the many variations of education beyond high school. When a student decides to pursue a professional certificate or associate degree in a technical field, we should celebrate that as a college completion, and not bend over backwards to emphasize that this accomplishment is not college. There is a drumbeat (one that the Michigan College Access Network hopefully played a role in amplifying) that every child should go to college. However, there has never been a rallying cry for every child to attain a bachelor’s degree.
At the beginning of her column, Price mentions seniors working on college applications and juniors attending college fairs as they prepare for their next educational steps. To be clear, all of the postsecondary certificate programs in the skilled trades also require applications and admission, and representatives of these programs can and do participate in college fairs. These programs aren't free and they aren't casual. Seniors who are choosing a trade/technical route should complete applications, fill out their financial aid materials, apply for scholarships, and weigh their options alongside other seniors who are choosing a university route.
In both instances, they are applying to college. When we separate these pathways and distinguish them from traditional four-year college, we inadvertently minimize their value and importance. Dividing students into college-bound (read: university) and career-bound (read: non-university) does much more harm to a student's self-confidence and self-worth. Students who pursue education beyond high school are going to college – whether they are pursuing an engineering degree from Michigan State University or a welding technology certificate from Lansing Community College.
Price argues that school counselors and parents must help today’s graduates find the “best fit.” Again, I emphatically agree. However, she argues that for many students, the best fit means forgoing a college education. My concern is the message we are sending, and to whom we are sending that message. We rarely advise our own children to not go to college. We are talking about other kids – and those other kids are probably low-income (and qualify for a Pell Grant) and probably don't have parents with college degrees.
Without a doubt these students have bigger barriers to overcome. However, our response as leaders should not be to push them into programs that will limit their professional opportunities and wages. We should provide them with the social, academic, informational and financial supports they need to fulfill their career dreams, whichever pathway they choose.
Price says “there is too little attention given to the opportunities that advanced manufacturing, the skilled trades, and other non-degreed options might offer.” If I may be so bold, that is all I hear us talking about. The governor made it a centerpiece of his education message in 2013 and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. recently launched a major program to promote these fields across the state. The phrase “college readiness” has now been replaced with “college and career readiness” as a reflection of the shift – and for good reason. If anything, I worry that the pendulum has swung too far. The “Is College Worth It?” headline is now a daily occurrence, despite the clear and compelling evidence that the attainment of a bachelor's degree is the surest path to economic well-being of individuals, as well as of their families and communities.
I don't have kids – but if I do, I will do everything I possibly can to set them up for success, including encouraging them to go to college. The bottom line is this: I believe that we should prepare all students for college – and that simply means we shouldn’t set an expectation of a high school diploma as a terminal completion point. College is anything from a technical certificate to a PhD, and we should celebrate and value students that complete any of these credentials.
Brandy Johnson is the founder and executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, and a first-generation college graduate.