School Mental Health Project

Preparing Everyone for College:
What are the Implications?

There is an increasing focus on preparing all students to include higher education in their pathway to a productive career. The Virginia State Board of Education voted to require public middle schools to assist each student in devising an academic plan that will lead to high school graduation and help with attending college and pursuing a future career.

There is some concern, however, that making college the only option will lead some students to opt out of school. The Public Health Agenda and the Urban Institute hosted a meeting that looked at this issued. Here is an excerpt from their webcast announcement:

"Fifty-five percent of Americans say that college is necessary in today's economy... only 33 percent of public school teachers say that "virtually all students" are better off going to college; 65 percent believe that many students should take a different career path.....
From our perspective, we suggest that increasing the number of students succeeding in college requires enhancing learning supports (pre K through higher education) to increase equity of opportunity for succeeding at school.

We shared this as a re-emerging issue in the October 2009 ENEWS (online at http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/pdfdocs/ENEWS/oct09.pdf) and we asked for views on the issue. The following are the first responses:

(1) I am writing in response to the probing questions you posted in your newsletter regarding an "emerging issue." I find the questions you posted to be probing and very thoughtful. In order to address the questions posed, it requires a person to identify their core values related to the benefit of education for all students. My values reflect that we should be lifelong learners. Now, whether learning occurs only within the contexts of a four-year institution is very different. My own experience with three children reflects a very diverse benefit of education for each child. I have one child who is in the final year of law school earning his J.D. this December. My second son is making a handsome middle class salary having completed a 2-year internship program. My third child is completing her Bachelor’s degree but is not clear on what are the benefits to completing a 4 year program for her future. As a family, we have always encouraged our children to position themselves for the best economic advantage to meet their life mission. This sometimes requires vocational training, while other times it requires exposure to a more conventional scope and sequence approach to curricula. My belief is that we need to make post secondary education affordable, accessible and applicable to the needs of 21st Century workforce. This does not mean that one-size fits all. It should not be required that all students be forced into one standard post-secondary setting. Clearly, a one-size fits all approach does not work for at-risk and students with disabilities. I continue to support making post secondary options meaningful, affordable and available for all, without forcing all to take advantage of the opportunities.

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(2) The ENEWS asked for comments on the subject of preparing everyone for college, and these are mine. I am involved in this sort of effort both as the PTSA President of a High School and as a member of the Fairfax County Superintendent's Community Advisory Council. And I feel strongly that every student should be prepared for college - whether they go directly from high school or perhaps never go at all.

Preparing for college can mean several things. Most see this as being made ready to move directly to college after high school. Those students typically are on a formal "College Preparatory" track, and earn what in the FCPS is called the "Advanced Degree." But there are others who won't move directly to college. Shouldn't they also be "prepared" so that, should they later decide to attend college, they can do so successfully? Without some preparation in high school these students will find it very difficult to be successful in college, and may never even consider it. It's this latter group that most concerns me. They should take some college prep courses, too - not least to preserve the option of attending later, but also to gain the sort of "soft skills" that everyone needs to be successful at work and in life.

College prep courses have a value that goes beyond the specifics of Calculus or Chemistry or Comparative Government; it's the teaching of soft skills. Soft skills are the ability to solve problems creatively, to write and speak well, to look at information critically, and, perhaps most important of all, to be punctual, dependable and industrious that is, to have good work habits. Gain those things, and there are almost no limits to anyone's horizons. Without them, everyone will struggle to be successful - almost regardless of how success is defined.

What these soft skills create, in particular, are options options that can be exercised at any time. Giving all students more options in life is a schools most fundamental task. And, if College Prep classes are the way to gain those soft skills, then every student - every one - must be strongly encouraged take some College Prep classes, whether or not their plans today include college tomorrow. Jay Mathews, a reporter for "The Washington Post" wrote: A high school that does not do everything it can to prepare for college those students who do not want to go to college is putting them at risk of spending the rest of their lives unable to support themselves and their families adequately and depriving them of the tools they need to go on to college if, as often happens with maturing adolescents, they change their minds.

College Prep doesnt require or dictate attending college; it simply preserves the option. Okay, forget college for a minute. Employers wanting high school graduates look for exactly the same traits - those oh-so-critical soft skills - that will guarantee admission to college and strengthen chances of graduating. College or no college, soft skills are critical.

Shouldn’t all high schools focus on building these soft skills in every student? Its especially important for average and below-average students to take at least one college-level (AP) course in high school; not just College Prep, but college level. These courses are the best tools high schools have for encouraging good writing, creative problem solving and dependable work habits. Again, college or no college, soft skills are critical.

Too few schools today even try to sell the college dream to every student. Even in a system as wonderful as the FCPS, this is not done. And it should be. This means more than just opening up AP courses to anyone, it requires that schools strongly encourage every student to take one. And to ensure that no one will ever again graduate from high school without having taken at least some College Prep courses. No one. Life can be hard enough. We cannot let our students make it even harder by graduating without soft skills and at least the option of attending college later.

Finally, I noticed in the article that public schools teachers' opinions about whether or not college is needed was cited. Why? What do they know of the non-school workplace and what its demands are? I hire for the Department of the Navy, and I can state positively that the skills learned in advanced classes are necessary and are never wasted. When someone brings skills to the workplace it is their responsibility to find ways to apply those skills to their work (at least partly). Their employer certainly thought the skills were needed or they wouldn't have hired someone with them. I hire entry-level people, and some have Doctorates (only a Bachelor's degree is required). Are those higher order skills wasted on entry level work? No. They might not be using everything learned in their studies on every task by they will unquestionably bring more to the workplace than someone with a BS or even a Masters. And that usefulness will increase as they progress in their careers.

Yes - prepare everyone for college. The preparation itself is valuable - it creates soft skills - the option provided is valuable and the skills learned will be used.

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(3) In response to the article concerning whether all students should be prepared for college, I must respond in the negative. Only 20-25% of careers require a four-year degree, a figure that has not changed significantly since World War II. It still requires more custodians than engineers and more secretaries than doctors to meet the occupational needs of the country. To prepare most students for college is to bring undue academic and emotional stress on a large number of our students, leading to increasing numbers of dropouts.

If we talk in terms of "further education", then yes most students do require some education beyond high school. But it is in the form of trade and technical programs, apprenticeships, and similar programs that are directly connected with the realities of the job market.

One has only to look at the large numbers of college-educated people from developing nations such as India and China who have immigrated to the United States and now hold menial jobs as store clerks, stock persons, and cooks to see the result of an overeducated (or perhaps I should use the term miseducated) population.

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Responses from our Young Adult Advisors

(1) I believe its important to address REALITY. The reality is higher education is vital for future success. It's a contributing factor along with many other factors. I also believe the "other side" (is post secondary education for everyone)should be explored more so than what it is. The Urban Institute addressed common aspects. Seemingly, I think some individuals enroll in college based off pressures particularly, "you won't get anywhere without an education". I tend to think whether college is for everyone or not, we all have the RIGHT to an education. Following the The Center's perspective, this right can be met by "increasing the equity of opportunity for succeeding at school."

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(2) Actually, I agree that creating a plan would be a very lucrative option, if only to get middle school students exposed to other options after High school. However, some students do not believe that they can actually achieve college, so that can be a daunting feeling. What could help lessen this is not only exposing them to the option of college and have them create a plan, but in that plan include financial planning and information that can be used I know personally that coming to college i knew how expensive it was and knew a little bit about financial aid, but i was not aware of the extent to how expensive it was. Having this knowledge can also ease the transition into college because as students, that is one less worry to have.

Moreover, because a four year institution is not for everyone, what the State board of education in Virginia could do is instead of focusing on pushing a student into creating a plan for college, the resources could be used to expose students to different options. Have designated workshops, career days, etc. This way, Students are not daunted by the thought of college, especially those that do not feel that is the right path for them. Students who do want to take that path are gaining the necessary knowledge at a younger age. Also, if students are not only exposed to just the idea of four year institutions, but of two-year colleges and getting work after high school, students will know and be able to evaluate for themselves what plan would work best for them.

Exposure to the options and leaving the students to make their own decisions instead of just pushing them towards a four year institution can actually lead to more success in college. This is because students that would normally not go to college but are pushed to apply would know that there are other options, so they would probably not apply and actually pursue what they want. This would lead students to drop less out of College because those that applied are there because they want to be there, and not because they were pushed to be there because there are "no more" options other than college.

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(3) •• Is higher education for everyone, and, if not, who should go to college? Are there really enough good jobs for four-year college graduates, or are too many consigned to poor-paying, insecure, semi-professional jobs that don't make use of graduates' knowledge and skills?

•• Should some students be encouraged to pursue two-year or certification programs instead? •• What are the prospects for public universities and community colleges, given battered budgets and overflowing applicant pools? •• What is the fallout of the "college for success" mindset for K-12 education, parents, and policymakers? •• Are there enough high-quality alternatives to college for young people who don't want to go or fail to finish? •• Do too many Americans not complete degrees, and should we focus on increasing enrollment, as the Obama administration and others insist?"

We will add other comments as they are sent in.

Let us know what you think. Send comments to Ltaylor@ucla.edu

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