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The 'Yale or Jail' Syndrome:

'College For All' Is a Ridiculous Notion


Q. Sometimes, I feel that society looks on your child as a failure if he or she doesn't get in to an exclusive college, and graduate from it, too. I mean, if you don't go to college at all, it's as if people think you might as well start dealing crack, you're so "doomed." What gives?


Of course, the "Yale or jail" extremes are ridiculous and hurtful. But it is important to note that a college degree, and increasingly, an advanced degree, really do translate to dollars of income in a significant way in our society.


According to the study, "Education and Economic Mobility," by Brookings Institution scholar Ron Haskins, the inflation-adjusted median family income for adults ages 30-39 with a graduate degree was 80 percent higher in 2006 than in 1964. For those with a four-year college degree, it was almost 60 percent higher. But incomes for those with a high-school education or less have remained virtually unchanged over the same period.


That means the gap in real family income between adults with a graduate degree and those with only a high-school diploma is four times greater today than 40 years ago.


The point to the study was to show the upward mobility for low-income students that comes with a college degree. The study, part of a broader initiative called the Economic Mobility Project, shows that only 16 percent of those coming from homes earning in the nation's bottom fifth income ranking remained at this level if they got a college degree. Forty-two percent moved up to earning among the nation's top two-fifths.


However, 45 percent of those without a college degree with parents earning in the bottom fifth remained at this level.


Breaking out of the no-college cycle is tough. According to studies done at Harvard and at the University of Wisconsin, the enrollment of students from poor families in four-year colleges is about a third that of students from wealthier families. Also, students from low-income families are far less likely to graduate.


Since the problems assaulting low-income families are so major, and since family problems usually create conditions in which college attendance becomes overly difficult or impossible for some students, it often isn't realistic to point a teen toward the college track, especially if the young person doesn't like school or abstract thinking and discussions in the first place.


One solution is to beef up our high schools' technical and vocational education systems, and give the hope of high-paying jobs and good careers to the hands-on type of student who isn't college material to begin with.


U.S.-based high-tech companies cannot find enough qualified Americans to fill their needs, and two-thirds of graduate students at American universities in technical fields are foreign nationals. If those high-skilled jobs could be filled with Americans who previously have been dropping out of high school or going straight to low-skilled, entry-level jobs after graduation, then everyone would be better off.

Homework: Here's an interesting report, "The Overselling of Higher Education":


By Susan Darst Williams Ages & Stages 147 2008


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