The ideal of “College for All”—usually interpreted as meaning the acquisition of a four-year degree—is every bit as noble as it is unattainable, at least judging from actual graduation rates. It is within this tension that for-profit colleges wish to live—a kind of pseudo knight in shining armor riding gallantly into the battle for equal opportunity. But too many for-profit colleges (a.k.a., career colleges) are not solving educational issues. Rather, they are perpetuating inequalities and obscuring the fact that what is preached (e.g., “College for All”) has nothing to do with what gets achieved.
Many have pointed out that, by enshrining a path so few end up traveling (to say nothing of completing), we may be doing a great disservice to our youth. This argument is loud and clear; what may not be totally obvious is the variegated ways in which this constitutes a disservice. By idealizing the B.A./B.S. path, not only are we discouraging young people from exploring equally valid post high-school options, but we inadvertently may have also made them more vulnerable to the allure of disreputable for-profit colleges and/or encouraged for-profits to exploit this vulnerability.
As a matter of fact, one consequence (unintended, I am sure) of the “College for All” ideal may have been to widen the niche for for-profit career colleges. I am hardly the first to point out that the worst career colleges sell fake dreams by arm-twisting and sweet-talking potential students into taking out unsustainable—often federally-subsidized—loans for products of uncertain value. For-profit colleges did not create this dream. We did. They have only done what we would expect a for-profit entity to do: Exploit it.
According to Pathways to Prosperity, a recent Harvard Graduate School of Education report, even though the notion still prevails that “in 21st century America education beyond high school is the passport to the American Dream,” the “College for All” formula is being reexamined. In fact, according to the report, “only about half of those enrolling in a four-year college program attain a bachelor’s degree after six years.” The situation is even more dire for minorities, with “only 30 percent of African-Americans and fewer than 20 percent of Latinos in their mid-20s having an associate’s degree or higher. Indeed, one wonders if the very word “college”—as in “career college”—isn’t morphing into a catchall for all postsecondary training and education, of whatever duration and quality, simply because the four-year trip isn’t working for so many.
A 2004 report on perceptions on higher education also reveals that, although public attitudes about college attendance remain generally positive, they have become more troubled in the sense that some social groups, such as African Americans and Hispanics, are increasingly concerned about access. At the same time, this report notes that minority parents, more so than their white counterparts, attach a great deal of importance to higher education as a path for their children’s success. This tells us that disadvantaged minorities tend to embrace the “College for All” dream more intensely than the general public, while also fearing that—at least for them and their children—it remains out of reach.
Enter unscrupulous for-profit colleges with an easy, attractively packaged solution (but without the fine print warning you of high costs and low success rates). With enrollments that are half low-income students and 37 percent minority, these for-profit colleges have been described as subprime-loan purveyors who prey on vulnerable youth by “peddling access to the American Dream, but delivering little more than crippling debt” (see here).
When fewer than one in three US students manage to graduate from a four-year college—and a significant percentage of those who do find themselves unemployed or underemployed, without the necessary skills to compete in the modern jobs market—it’s hard not to ask ourselves how much and what kind of post-secondary education is really necessary and for what. According to “Pathways to Prosperity,” one answer rests with high-quality, 21st century career-and-technical education (CTE).
The truth is not everybody can, should, or needs to pursue a four-year college education. CTE, apprenticeship programs, two-year community colleges, on-the-job training—there are many good options, some of them quite rewarding. By not presenting young people with accurate and diverse career pathways, we sabotage their ability to make fully informed decisions. Simultaneously, when the dominant rhetoric becomes so overly narrow that reality is left behind, we make it easier for those who peddle unreal, unworkable solutions to prey upon and profit from our aspirations. The two can be addressed by diversifying our messages to young people about the options available. As in many things, in diversity there is power.