Vocational training doesn’t ensure a living wage for students lacking the skills needed for college.
s a full-time community college English instructor from Chicago, I initially read Michael Petrilli’s “Kid, I’m Sorry, but You’re Just Not College Material” with excitement, and I shared the article aggressively with other educators on social media.
Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on education policy. He believes that encouraging unprepared or unskilled students to attend college is not merely counterproductive but also unfair. While we have good reasons to desire higher college completion rates — statistically, college graduates earn more money and live healthier, more fulfilling lives than those earning only high school diplomas — Petrilli posits that it’s a false promise to tell young people who lack reading and computation skills that they’ll benefit from college, something especially true for people of low socioeconomic backgrounds. We should, Petrilli suggests, create alternative means for them to find training and employment.
When I first read the article, I felt I agreed with it. But in the months since its publication, I’ve spoken to many colleagues about it, and after further review, few of us are able to entirely agree with Petrilli’s argument.
The community college where I work serves a low socioeconomic community, and our typical student will be the first person in their family to attempt higher education, sometimes to have completed high school. Most of our students come from families with low levels of literacy, and a good portion, perhaps as high as 30 percent, are mid-childhood English learners born to immigrant families; these students started learning English at around age 7. The local public schools deal with teen (and tween) pregnancies and gang violence, among other social ills. In short, the poor urban population Petrilli writes about — educators call them “at risk” students — is the population I teach.
My department discusses the problem during every semester-end assessment: how to handle the vast majority of students who do not gain, and demonstrate little progress toward gaining, the reading and writing skills necessary to do college work. Although we intuit the answer, none of us will speak it on the record. Instead, we’ll come up with yet another tweak to our courses before the next term, even though we sense that, in the current system, there’s nothing we can do for many of our students. The situation is just too dire.
Typically, between 60-70 percent of applicants completing our placement test end up in developmental language classes. For laymen, developmental classes are “remedial,” meant to improve language skills so students can take Composition, or English 101 (a required course for virtually every student). Because we use a different scale to assess placement, we don’t have the data necessary to pinpoint how students’ reading and writing skills measure in terms of grade level. Our professional judgment, however, should place them between sixth and tenth grade.
I encounter students every semester who can neither compose a syntactically meaningful sentence nor accurately recall the plot of what they have read. These students are, mind you, high school graduates, or adults who completed GED programs.
Our pass rate in a class like English 088, the developmental primer for English 101, fluctuates between 50-60 percent. It’s worse in English 101, with slightly less than half passing program-wide. About 55 percent of students who do make it to English 102, our introduction to college research writing, will pass it in a single try. Yet a recent assessment of random English 102 final essays showed that less than a quarter met expectations, and not a single essay exceeded those expectations.
Our Nursing Department draws from students who have completed two years of instruction, including, in most cases, the English 101-102 sequence. Nursing students are required to demonstrate college-readiness by retaking the placement test. One colleague estimates that, consistently, around 25 percent of these applicants will fail this step. Of those who pass, the vast majority do so within two points of the minimum acceptable score — the same score that represents the requirement needed to first enroll in English 101.
This means a large group of nursing applicants demonstrate skills barely adequate to qualify for courses they already passed during their first year. If nursing applicants were representative of the general student population, we could predict that one out of every four students would fail to qualify for a college level class, despite having previously passed English 101. Yet nursing students are not representative. In our college, they are among the top performers.
You might be quick to indict our English program, or our reading and writing instruction across the curriculum. I suspect some colleagues will be angry with me for airing dirty laundry. Institutionally, we’re guilty of all sorts of things. In fairness to our school, however, the stink here isn’t necessarily the result of incompetence. The majority of my colleagues are capable instructors and quite conscientious, consistently trying to improve, even as each semester brings a fresh class of students armed with poorer and poorer skills.
Students come from markedly substandard K-12 experiences, and exist in unstable environments; in some cases, school is the safest place they’ll know. A colleague once said, “How much can anyone expect from us? We take people off the street.” In the business of educating “at risk” students, our college might be an intriguing case, but we’re far from a bizarre outlier. We’d actually be an exceptional case if we could report better student performance.
Three semesters ago, I was faced with the prospect of failing an entire class. In over 15 years of teaching, I’d seen nothing like it. Yet I accepted it was going to happen and made an appointment to see the dean before grades were due. “They’re just not handing in the work,” I said. “There’s nothing for me to evaluate. They’re not reading the texts. The few who read don’t understand much of it.” The dean wasn’t pleased but, to his credit, he told me to use my best judgment.
Of the original 24 students, one who had been teetering all semester passed after a breakthrough final essay.
I blamed myself for failing to teach, for not finding ways to motivate, perhaps for being too harsh, or for trying to cover too many concepts. But I soon learned that other instructors were encountering similar situations. At the copy machine, one young part-time instructor told me she had “rebooted” the semester following the midterm and changed her attendance and homework policy. “If not for that,” she said, “I’d have had three or four students left after midterm. So we had to start from scratch.” Still, just six of her original 24 students passed.
At a faculty meeting, another part-timer spoke up: “We can’t just keep failing all these people. They face difficult challenges. We have to be fair.” This common sentiment — that failing is unfair, that more people have to pass — is desperation disguised as compassion. Hope, pity, sentimentality, and personal shame compel instructors to move many students along. As a result, students might make it all the way to a program like nursing only to hit a wall, one often so insurmountable as to derail their college aspirations.
The failsafe in the Nursing Department does what it’s designed to do: it keeps out students who will not benefit. But the reason it exists is because the college knows itself. We lead many students to think they’re doing well because they’re passing, even when instructors know that passing grades do not necessarily represent actual skill.
Any instructor teaching a class with a prerequisite of English 101 will, after giving an early-semester reading assessment, look at the results and put their hands up in despair. What do you do when you know only four or five of 24 or 36 students can read at the level the textbook requires?
Nobody wants to tell students, “You haven’t gained the skills to understand the information or concepts necessary to solve the problems this class presents.” That’s a harsh statement. The student has never heard it. It’s hard for an instructor to tell someone they’re in the wrong place when an entire system has told them they’re in the right one, when the student has heard parents, teachers, and counselors say, “You’ve got to go to college, or else.” So we play the game, remain mum, and watch students flounder, even when we know what looms at the end of the track.
oosting things like graduation rates is actually very easy. You prohibit or discourage failure, as many elementary, middle, and high schools do, and graduate more people. Our college draws from many such schools. But getting students to demonstrate skills and solve problems? This difficult undertaking requires three things: a culture that expects learning, teachers possessing the talent and eagerness to impart abilities, and students capable of acquiring those abilities. We easily criticize teachers or entire school systems for failing to teach, but we balk at the idea that some students — more than we’d like to believe — face too many challenges to benefit from college. These challenges might include a lack of preparation, difficult circumstances, or low levels of intelligence; most likely, it’s a combination. At a certain point, even the most idealistic and compassionate among us accept that large numbers of our population simply can’t make it through our program.
To some, the solution might seem obvious. As Petrilli suggests, just discourage these troubled populations from attempting a four-year college path. Petrilli concludes:
… we should build a system that helps many students find another road to the middle class—a path that starts with a better prekindergarten-through-eighth-grade education and then develops strong technical and interpersonal skills in high school and at community colleges. This is an honorable path, and one that’s much sturdier than the rickety bridges to failure that we’ve got now.
That sounds really nice as a long-term plan, but offers little hope for students currently struggling through their education. And as we take a look at what’s happening in community colleges like mine, Petrilli’s idea suddenly begs the question: if people aren’t fit for college — community or otherwise — what are they fit for?
What Petrilli fails to address is the fact that the U.S. labor market is the worst we have seen in seven decades, and even college graduates face dim prospects. According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, 8.5 percent of college graduates aged 25 or younger were unemployed in 2014 (up from 5.5 percent in 2007), while 16.8 percent were underemployed, working jobs that require a high school diploma or less (up from 9.6 percent in 2007). I mention this because, like Petrilli, people so often view higher education as a guarantee of financial achievement. While the 2014 unemployment numbers for high school graduates are, by comparison, abysmal—22.9 percent are unemployed, while a whopping 41.5 percent are underemployed (15.9 percent and 26.8 percent, respectively, in 2007) — college no longer provides the socioeconomic ladder it used to.
While it’s still possible to join the middle class by taking an apprenticeship of sorts, and while demand for skilled blue-collar workers — electricians, plumbers, carpenters — is, at least by some measures, finally increasing, I don’t see how the current economy could support every high school graduate who might choose to forego the four-year college path. And even if that support existed, how can workers climb a rung or two up the socioeconomic ladder?
Let’s pretend we expected 100 percent of students deemed unfit for four-year colleges to complete some vocational training. My institution offers HVAC (Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning) and automotive programs, both surprisingly complex. We also prepare people to work as physical therapy assistants, IT technicians, and entry-level office workers. All of these programs attract droves of students who will not complete them. Instructors can often predict who’s not going to make it after only a few weeks of evaluation.
Consider students who fail out of our college’s vocational programs and begin seeking employment. The problem is that these students aren’t entering the workforce on a level playing field. They are competing not only with each other, but also with graduates from reputable universities who are struggling to find work, or who are working jobs below their education level. As a society, what responsibility do we have to job seekers who haven’t earned a college degree?
Most of my students’ elders traditionally worked manufacturing or service jobs — their grandparents supported six kids by working in factories. The books in the house, when they existed, contained recipes or Christ’s parables.
The manufacturing jobs are now all but gone. Drive down from our college and you will see decaying brick hulks with crumbling smokestacks, or a mall that was once a factory on the cutting edge of productivity and worker retention. In its place are a Home Depot, Target, various fast food joints, and other places offering minimum wage.
Kids born in the wake of outsourcing attend our community college because they have few other options. What they find is that the people who told them they had to go to college never prepared them for its most basic classes. In this economy, if a high school graduate is unprepared for college — or if some set of variables contributes to making the most basic vocational program nearly impossible — they may as well have never prepared for any career at all. They have no future that promises to be any better than the present. Things might get worse, but they’re not about to improve.
he solution is not as simple as Petrilli suggests. We will not fix our broken system by making improvements in K-8 schooling, providing struggling high school students with “high-quality career and technical education,” and then diverting those students from the college track to “train in the vocations.” Many workers are already pursuing vocations and failing. Even students who complete our college programs often find a job market willing to pay the same $12 per hour they earned before they took two or more years to toil through classes that strained their lives — before they, or perhaps a grant, paid tens of thousands of dollars for those classes.
Petrilli is right that our education system needs reform, from pre-school through college. I agree with his assertions that we need to distribute students in new ways, and that the current college funding model is a travesty. But the grand solutions to these problems do not lie exclusively in the education system. We need a cultural shift.
We tend to look at education as a force that influences or creates culture. This is shortsighted. Instead, we need to start seeing our education system as an expression of our culture, an element of the culture itself, a system that not only generates values but ultimately becomes a natural extension of those values. Cultures that value equality and egalitarianism aspire to an equal and egalitarian society. But our culture is not there yet. We need to face the fact that our education system is stressed because we’ve swept entire sections of our society off the grid. We believe that people who can’t use a word processor or earn more than $12 an hour have flawed capacities. I suppose in some ways they do; there are no perfect people, from the abject poor to the ultra-elite. Yet we set young workers up for failure when we consider them expendable, unworthy of earning even minimum wage.
When defined as the place one gains a liberal education, including lessons in introspection and critical thought, college obviously requires abilities not everyone has. Our culture, however, is not wisely developing every available skill set. We do not have a secure or obvious path toward socioeconomic mobility for people who encounter insurmountable walls that prevent them from studying computer science, engineering, or nursing. Should we leave them of the other side of those walls without so much as throwing them a ladder?
Evaluating someone’s capabilities might be the crassest lens we employ to understand each other. The “meritocracy” has a habit of letting distinguished members define which merits are valuable. Instead of employing a checklist of abilities to measure children and testing to see who has them and who doesn’t, we should develop a system that allows young people to explore their interests, a system designed to bring out individual qualities and allow a creative mentor to encourage their development and growth. If this sounds abstract and weird, it is. Teaching is abstract and weird: an art, not a science.
It’s long past time to raise the prestige and rewards of the teaching profession, and to recruit educators from among our most intelligent and creative students. We should also re-introduce vocational studies in public high schools, perhaps even by linking them to clinical labs in places like construction sites, IT departments, mechanics’ garages, or, as some progressive schools are doing, farms. Why we do not teach the basics of business, banking, economics, or investment in high school is a mystery. That we don’t teach high school students aspiring to college how student loans work is simply irresponsible.
The problems in our education system are ultimately manifestations of our culture of growing inequality and the social problems that accompany poverty. We cannot use the education system to fight inequality when that system is just a cloud in the storm. The initial steps in education reform should not be to set goals for particular outcomes in 10 or 15 years. Reform should strive to guarantee every child essentially the same quality of education, but not necessarily the same education for every child. We should desire a culture of learning, curiosity, and creativity, not collections of credentials, rewards for proving we could “get in” and handle the grind.
This requires changing how we regard people on the “other side” of town. In other words, it requires seeing that we live, all of us, in the same town, that each distinct culture is still a part of the whole, a reflection of what we believe and value. The health and prosperity of our neighbor is directly tied to ours, yet to think our only worthy neighbors are those who achieve as we do is elitist and divisive. The results of that mindset are all around us.