He was on his way home from just having dropped all his classes at the local community college. Having graduated from high school sixteen months ago, every one of his postsecondary plans had failed to come to fruition, and the drive home from campus gave him time to ponder what would come next.
As it turns out, he didn’t have to ponder long. He came across a home construction site on the route home, and had always had an interest working with his hands. He swung his car up to the site, got out, and asked the first hard-hatted worker just what it might take to get a job like this. The worker turned out to be the contractor, who said that anyone who had the guts to pull up and ask was worth taking a chance on. Find yourself a good pair of boots, he was told, and come back tomorrow.
That was the beginning of a postsecondary plan that stuck. At age nineteen, he took on a job that paid $42,000, less than the median household income for his state, but far more than he would have earned working at the local sandwich shop. His brief stint at community college left him little debt to be concerned with, and while his short-term plans doubtlessly included continued residency with his parents, it wouldn’t be long before he could afford an apartment of his own—and after that, his own home.
This is a remarkable story for several reasons, but what’s most noteworthy is the response this story receives from the school counselors and college admissions officers who hear it. To nearly a person, they are convinced this young man has thrown away his future. Citing countless personal and professional histories, they speak with clear certainty that he will regret his choice by the time he’s twenty-eight, only to find himself saddled with a mortgage or the well-being of a young family, unable to go back to college on a full-time basis, and therefore destined to be trapped in a job that appeared to pay well in his youth, but will limit his opportunities later in life.
This story comes to mind as we are weeks away from headlines that decry a different kind of postsecondary story: the headlines of another round of record applicants to a handful of the most selective colleges in America, where statistics suggest admission is less likely than being struck by lightning. Every seat in these colleges will be filled this fall by a promising, eager student, but the headlines turn their attention to the vast majority of exceptionally bright students who also had the potential to do great things at these colleges—except the college ran out of room before they ran out of quality applicants.
The way most stories tell it, these hapless applicants are victims of the postsecondary wheel of fortune, destined to try and make do at a college that likely is still highly regarded, but not quite as highly regarded, forced to devote part of their lives to perpetually looking back, and wondering what would have been if they had been one of the fortunate few whose cell phone had played the school’s fight song when they opened their emailed admissions decision.
Much has been written about the need for reform in America’s higher education system, and while there is ample agreement that the current system has need of correction, there is no clear consensus what that correction should look like. Not surprisingly, testing companies insist the answer is more testing at an earlier age, while advocates of test-less admissions policies are convinced their approach is the only one that will open the gates of higher learning to a wider audience. Others advocate for stackable college credentials that measure a semester’s worth of work as the only way to make college affordable, while developmental purists fret this approach would reduce the developmental benefits young people receive in the delayed gratification that is part of the four-year college experience.
These arguments make for interesting intellectual exercises, but they do little to help the students who had to “settle” for studying at the honors college of a four-year public university, or the students whose knowledge of geometry put college out of reach, but made them experts at framing walls and cutting pipe. Our current system of higher education has many challenges, but the biggest one lies in changing the perception that there can only be a handful of winners once high school is over. Different talents and different needs require different plans, and honoring those differences doesn’t require us to sacrifice the quality of the unum, simply because we honor the talents of the pluribus.
Our country is supposed to be a tent of opportunity. Let’s advance that idea by seeing all our high school graduates as residents of the big top.