A number of posters to the Chronicle Forum disagree. Here are their arguments and my responses:
Criticism #1: Marginal students struggle even with a college degree. Why would you discourage them from getting even that?
As my article documented, every year, four-year colleges enroll hundreds of thousands of students who graduated in the bottom half of their high-school class, the large majority of whom learn little, acquire much debt, and have only a 1/3 chance of graduating even if given 8 1/2 years.
Those students will likely learn more and have a brighter career future if they choose an option other than four-year college: an apprenticeship program, community college, career college, the military, or a launchpad job at the elbow of a fund raiser, ethical small-business owner, electrician, etc. Because colleges are turning out ever more college graduates at the same time as employers are offshoring, part-timing, and automating ever more white-collar jobs, even if those weak students manage to beat the large odds and get their degree, they are likely to be among the weakest college graduates and thus more career-at-risk than if they had chosen one of the aforementioned paths.
I felt compelled to write America’s Most Overrated Product: A Bachelor’s Degree in part, because I’ve seen countless students who struggled in high school pushed to college where they dropped out or managed to — six to 10 years later — finish their degree, only to find themselves unable to get a better job than they could have gotten as a mere high-school graduate. And, importantly, most of them lack the thinking and communication skills one would expect even of a marginal college graduate. Meanwhile, they see their peers happier and more successful in a career such as the aforementioned.
Criticism #2: Some students did badly in high school but blossomed in college.
The evidence is dispositive: For every late-blooming success, there are many who fail, and for whom a non-college path would have been wiser.
Most physicians wouldn’t prescribe a treatment that took four to eight years, cost a fortune, and had a high risk of failure. And if a physician did so without fully informing the patient, the patient would likely sue and win in any court in the land. Yet every year, four-year colleges administer such a treatment — providing nowhere near full disclosure — to hundreds of thousands of underprepared students, the large majority of whom end up dropping out having acquired little learning, much debt, and damaged self-esteem.
And not only are the colleges not sued, government rewards them with ever-increased financial aid, which allows the colleges to continue to raise tuition beyond the cost of inflation.
Criticism #3: Don’t just blame the colleges for admitting underprepared students. High school counselors have a responsibility too.
I agree, but colleges must first provide counselors with the data on average learning gains, graduation rates, and employment for students, disaggregated by SAT score bands. That would greatly help high-school counselors assist students in weighing the cost-benefit of four-year college versus the aforementioned options.