The ideology of college

The second part of the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, focusing on student achievement, is out, and it’s a compelling read. Most notably for me, the survey digs into how students and educators view post-secondary education.

I’ve jumped into the ideology of college for all. It’s a high and important aim to set early. Jared Bernstein, chief economist of Vice President Biden, pushed me over the edge. Mr. Bernstein visited my students earlier this year and distributed a simple bar graph titled “Learn More, Earn More.” The stark numbers on how education pays were eye-opening to many of the juniors and seniors. Here are the average American salaries based on levels on education:

$20,246 – High school dropout

$27,963 – High school graduate

$48, 097 – College graduate

$58,522 – Masters Degree

$87,775 – Professional Degree

This was news to students at my college-prep DC charter school. If they don’t know about the concrete financial rewards of education, then their counterparts around the country in less college-prep-intensive environments surely don’t.

They need to. As the Survey points out, “An estimated 85% of current jobs and nearly 90% of fast growing and well paying jobs depend on some form of postsecondary education.”

College is crucial. It’s a jolt to read in the Survey related that only 50% of teachers expect that their students will attend a two- or four-year college. If this is still the case in ten years, that will be very sad. We need to put in place the structures (early reading initiatives, intimate learning environments, personal connections to positive role models, substantive college counseling…) to place young people on what Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada calls “a conveyor belt” to college. Students can’t afford not to go. The disparity in wages between a high school grad and a college grad over a forty-year career approaches a million dollars. That million dollar boost from a college degree represents the chasm between a middle-class life and a life that is often one misstep away from catastrophe.

It’s also alarming that while only half of teachers expect their students to attend college, 79% of students say they plan to go. (Sixty-nine percent have a four-year college program in their sights.) Why the disconnection between teachers’ expectations and students’ hopes? It’s easy for critics to leap on teachers for a “soft bigotry of low expectations,” as George W. Bush put it. Brash rhetoric, though, doesn’t change the reality that not all students today demonstrate the basic tools (time-management, fundamental reading/writing skills, self-advocacy, personal responsibility, etc.) to succeed in college.

However, students’ tools are not immutable. For example, a tenth-grader who rarely submits assignments and mouths off in ugly ways to her teachers may, by graduation, pull together the skills and motivation needed to go after the right carrot. I have massive reservations about some of my students’ abilities to handle the academic rigor and independence of college life. However, I try to press forward with my school community with the goal that we can right the ship and minimize the collateral damage of lost time. Metamorphoses can occur. I expect 90% or more of my 11th and 12th-grade students to go to college. I expect almost all of them to finish. Are my expectations legitimate or fantasy? The Washington Post tells me that only 9% of D.C. high school freshman graduate from college.

College graduation rates may be the strongest indicator for America’s economic future, and I think White House economist Jared Bernstein agrees. It’s time to make college readiness a centerpiece in all of our country’s schools. As the Survey points out, gaps between students’ plans and teachers’ expectations may be perpetuating an underachieving cycle that needs breaking.

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