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The "Third Rail" Question on College?

by Scott Bittle

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

There's been a lot of debate this week over what one New York Times writer calls the "third rail" question of higher education: should everyone go to college?

For people who have been watching this debate nationally, a major Times story on the issue has spurred debate - even becoming an intramural affair at the Times (some bloggers say the critics could have a point, others argue that economics make the case for more education). Here's a roundup of comments on the issue.

A key point is the nation's college completion rate, with only four in 10 students graduating in four years. For some, that's an argument that fewer people should be going to college – that those who drop out lack the commitment and academic qualifications to complete a degree. When Public Agenda surveyed young people about why they did or didn't finish college, however, we found most who dropped out said the juggling act of work, school and family responsibilities became too much for them. Young people who dropped out were more likely to come from low-income families with over half coming from households earning less than $35,000 annually. Nearly six-in-ten of those who dropped said that they were not getting financial help from their parents with their school expenses. In contrast, only 37 percent of those who graduated said the same thing.

Arguably, it’s just a much easier task to complete college when you can go to school full-time and when your family is able to support you financially while you’re studying. Based on our study, many of the young people who drop out of college just don’t have that luxury.

Another question isn't whether all students should go to college, it's whether they can and whether they’ve been encouraged and prepared to do so. The attitudes of public school teachers who get students ready for college or work are critical here. In our Teaching For A Living survey, we found nearly three-quarters of teachers agree with the statement "I believe that all my students, given the right support, can go to college if they choose." But only four in 10 strongly agree, and the intensity of this belief seems to be a major factor in a teachers' attitudes about their work. The teachers we tagged as "idealists" – the most dedicated and motivated – are the most likely to believe this, with 54 percent who strongly agree.


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