The Rhetoric and Reality of “College for All”

Riffing off my Nation piece on the "college for all" debate, Max Bean has written a really thoughtful series of posts about his time teaching math in a "no excuses" charter school, and the way in which the entire school culture was built around the expectation–an unrealistic expectation–that every child would attend and graduate from a four-year liberal arts college. 

Max's school began in sixth grade, and most students arrived several grade-levels behind in reading and math. Though standardized test scores jumped by the end of seventh grade, less than 10 percent of students had achieved "mastery" in any given subject. As Max writes, few of his students were on-track to perform in college alongside peers who had attended suburban public schools, urban test schools, or private prep schools:

…the instruction, particularly in mathematics and writing, focused heavily on state-test content and memorized rules. Many students could simplify algebraic expressions and solve linear equations, but few of them could solve even a simple application problem or adapt their knowledge to an unfamiliar context. Several of the weakest ones could not tell you what number comes below a hundred (see my post on this problem).

Under such conditions, the relentless focus on college created a divergence between the way we talked inside the school and the external reality. Material that was slightly more challenging than the norm—stuff that, at the private school where I had worked previously, would have been considered standard grade-level material—was referred to as “collegiate.” One day, I sat in on a lesson on basic logical operators used in database searches;  at the end of the lesson, another teacher who had also been sitting in, told the students that the subject they were learning, formal logic, was one that she hadn’t studied until college. No doubt, that was technically true, but the level of rigor of the lesson was hardly collegiate; by the standards of an affluent private-school, it was remedial. The importance of making students feel proud of their achievements cannot be overstated, and these white lies (no pun intended!) are told with the best of intentions; but repeated too often, they fostered dangerously inaccurate self-perceptions.

In his next post, Max acknowledges that teachers and administrators within the no-excuses charter movement worry, sometimes strenuously, about this disconnect between rhetoric and reality. He offers a brief intellectual history of "college for all:"

The “college for all” rhetoric is a reaction against what reformist critics of the 1990s (E. D. Hirsch is the obvious example) viewed as the softness and low expectations (and unconscious racism) of the Romantic-progressive attitudes that dominated public schooling in the mid-20thcentury, when vocational tracks served as dumping grounds for low-income and non-white students. (See Dana Goldstein’s article for The Nation for more detail on this.) Indeed, the moniker “No Excuses” is part of the same reaction: neither poverty nor broken homes nor drug-addicted parents nor anything else will be an excuse for academic failure. We must have high expectations for all students.

Indeed we must, but we should think carefully about what exactly those expectations are. “High expectations” is not a single idea; it’s a broad principle that can mean different things in different contexts. When we boil it down to the simple, concrete goal of universal college attendance, we lose more than we retain. As always, in the field of education, the attempt to expand and replicate a good idea has produced a codification that retains the veneer of the organic original, but little of its genius.

As some of the commenters on my last post pointed out, the question that’s really at stake here is, what are the purposes of schooling? High expectations will have a very different meaning depending on how we see those purposes: are they economic, social, intellectual, moral, democratic? College provides such a convenient token for high expectations, because it appears to serve all of these aims simultaneously. That very convenience should give us pause.


This is all a great argument, I think, for mixed academic/vocational courses of study like the ones I reported on in The Nation, at Aviation High School in Queens and Tech Valley High outside Albany. These programs connect high school students with the world of work though internships and skills classes, and put some of them on track to earn an occupational certificate straight out of high school. But they also require students to complete the core classes required for admission to a four-year college. This kind of high school curriculum is based on a realistic assessment of the American economy–including the fact that middle-class jobs in many growing industries, from health services to hospitality, do not require a four-year degree.

For more, check out Max Bean's excellent blog, Dewey to Delpit.

3 thoughts on “The Rhetoric and Reality of “College for All”

  1. Kalimah Priforce

    I agree that many middle class jobs in many industries don’t require a four-year degree, but are they jobs in demand?

    In the United States, we don’t have enough scientists, engineers, and other high skill roles that keep us a globally competitive nation.

    We don’t train and educate enough of the populations who have been historically marginalized in under-represented fields such as women and minorities.

    Every high school student doesn’t need to go to college, but they should be prepared to and be ACCEPTED into a college. It’s up to them if they go or not, but at least the school they attended did there job and not keep them stuck 20-30 years later in the same economic class from there freshman year in high school.

  2. Dana

    Hi Kalimah, This is a really great point. There are a lot of high-skills jobs that Americans aren’t being prepared for, like engineering, and we absolutely should strive to get more non-traditional people into those jobs, including people of color and women. The problem Max wrote about — and that I was tackling, in many ways, in my Nation piece — is what to do with older kids, in their teens, who have already been denied a high-quality education and are years behind in basic academic skills. For those kids, we may want to direct them more explicitly toward careers that don’t require a 4 year degree.

  3. EBB

    You have raised an issue that’s also relevant to non-minority HS students. The “college for all” refrain is demoralizing for students who prefer technical rather than academic learning. Even in “good” school systems, there are plenty of HS students who can not realistically expect to do well in college, and they are offered no alternatives at all. In our (praiseworthy) attempt to get as many students as possible, and especially those who have been denied in the past, to attain a 4-year degree, we are damaging young people for whom that is not a realistic (or even desired) option.


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