New Anti-Reform Meme: Too Many Kids Go to College

There’s a relatively new meme running through the edu-blogosphere that claims that the Common Core and its attendant standardized tests are built on the false premise that all kids should prepare for college and careers. For example, on Monday New Jersey blogger Marie Cornfield  claimed that the "big, fat myth of standardized testing “was foisted upon the public with the sole goal of scamming money from school districts. She writes, “It's not about developing a generation of super students or magically lifting every single child out of poverty. It's all about money, and the money is the hostage.“

The result of this scam, says Cornfield, is that now “students are graduating college with Cadillac degrees only to find work in the Edsel factory. The CCSS and PARCC will not solve that problem, but they will make a boatload of money for the testing industry. And while college debt is at record highs, that debt, unlike corporate debt, isn't erased in bankruptcy." The aspirations underlying the Common Core -- that students should graduate high school ready for college and careers -- are both quixotic and cynical because "a large sector of the American work force is highly over educated and working in jobs that don't require the education they earned, because those jobs do not exist.” (Emphasis her own.)

I’d like to know how Cornfield is measuring this “large sector” of “over-educated” college graduates, given that only 9% of low-income students earn college diplomas.  Fortunately, Andy Rotherham at Eduwonk attended a Fordham conference last week on social mobility and education, and he wrote up a few notes:
First, when did college for all who aspire to it become college for everyone? I don’t know anyone who thinks everyone should go to college, needs to, or that college is the only path to a fulfilled, impactful, and well-lived life. I do, however, know plenty of people who think that kids who want to go to college should be able to and that too few poor kids go (more on that in a minute). 
Second, at the Fordham event ideas about multiple pathways and even tracking were discussed with a clear undercurrent that we ought to be counseling more poor kids (and others) toward routes like that. This points up the very complicated questions of who decides, how, and based on what criteria? Everyone points to the Europeans here but ignores important cultural differences in how we think about education, gates to various paths, and second chances. In our country these routes have a poor history with second class education for lower-income Americans. These approaches also raise hard questions about how much we want our schools to be vocational and choice-making vehicles and how much we want them to be about preparing people to be able to make choices. And, related, how much we want schools to be able to prepare people to course correct if they realize a few years after high school that they made a choice that wasn’t the right one for them. 
Third, right now about nine percent of low-income students get a B.A. by the time they’re 24, about one in five finish some post-secondary degree in that timeframe. B.A.s for  affluent kid by 24? More than four in five. One hypothesis is that poor kids are not suited for college. Another, that I subscribe to, is that the outcomes we see are the result of a tremendously inequitable K-12 and higher education system that simply doesn’t work well for the poor. I’d be a lot more comfortable with a conversation about who shouldn’t go to college if it was predicated with an unambiguous declaration that a lot more poor kids can and should be going now.
Fourth, this conversation cannot be divorced from the reality that for all of its promise technology is wreaking havoc on the job prospects of many Americans and changing the kind of work done here at scale. 
Fifth, we obviously need better vocational, technical, and career education in this country. It’s such an obvious point it should go without saying. But the idea that these routes are oppositional to better academic preparation and preparation that leaves the door open for students to make choices after high school is belied by some experience. SREB’s Gene Bottoms wasn’t at the Fordham conference and that’s a shame. These are not new issues. 
Finally, why should more low-income kids go to college? Because it’s the best social mobility strategy we have right now as a country. This brief from Ron Haskins (who presented at the Fordham conference) does a nice job of showing just how powerful college is. If you’re poor and you go -and finish – you’re unlikely to remain poor and if you don’t the odds are against you. The data are compelling and in fact show that college matters for more low-income Americans than the affluent in terms of economic outcomes. Unfortunately, those data are apparently not as compelling as a broad set of politics that largely insulate a failing status quo from real change.
Thanks, Andy.