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College Not A Good Deal For Many High Schoolers

So why not retool instruction for trades and other skills that would leave graduates with good and debt-free job options?

Publication Date: 2013-03-15

This March 8, 2013 column is written by San Leandro High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line--Entirely Secondary-- is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary.

Jerry raises a critical point, one which too few teachers are willing to take on, for fear of being accused of not having "high expectations." I agree with Jerry 150% because high school is only going to get worse. I just watched David Steiner, dean of Hunter College School of Education and Common Core advocate, criticize the Common Core because it only requires a survey of American literature--and leaves out a survey of 17th, 18th, and 19th British literature. He's working hard to change this. I have a master's degree in medieval literature and have always felt that college English majors have only themselves to blame. But it seems insane to inflict Pope, Milton, Wordsworth, and Dickens on every high schooler. And Emerson, Faulkner, Hemingway, et al too. I want kids to have the opportunity for close contact with books that will knock their socks off--so they'll be tempted to pick up another book once they're out of school--whether they're plumbers or physicians. I also want them to have close contact with courses that will put them in touch with things they are curious about and with skills they want to learn.

by Jerry Heverly

On Wednesday I forgot to wear my Gettysburg College t-shirt.

Wednesday is designated as the day we teachers are asked to wear gear bearing the name of our alma mater.

The idea is to inspire all our students with the desire to go to college.

My wardrobe error was not intentional. I just forgot.

But, truth be told, I don't want my students to go to college.

It costs too much. Too many young people borrow too much money with too little income to pay it back. The average graduate is stuck with nearly $30,000 in debt by the time he or she graduates.

As the number of college grads swells more and more owners of Bachelor degrees end up as sales clerks or bookkeepers, making too little money to allow for reasonable loan repayment.

The hardest concept that I try to tell my students is the "opportunity cost."

While Sally is writing term papers about "the hidden phallus in the works of our most timid lady poets" (thank you Philip Roth), Jenny is out earning real money, and maybe gaining a foothold in a career.

Add the hundred thousand bucks you paid for a B.A. to the $150,000 that you didn't make during those years and you are talking about serious cash.

Yet every kid in my classes has been raised to believe that success is synonymous with "college graduate."

I see the result of that belief in February when my students plan their sophomore schedule. Even at that early stage of high school the drumbeat for (four year) college, college, college leads many of them to decisions that will doom them to three years of unnecessary tedium.

You get six classes for each semester at SLHS.

Every tenth grader must take English, History, Science and Physical Education.

I have no problem with any of those. We need a literate citizenry that has some basic understanding of the past. Science tries to teach some basic notions about the world around us. Whether PE classes actually help students become physically fit is an open question but I'm not prepared to advocate dropping that.

That leaves two open spots on your schedule.

This is where the college-for-all mania puts my fifteen year olds in a bind.

To get into a "good" college your counselor will tell you to take lots of math: geometry, pre-calculus, calculus, trigonometry, et. al.

You do want to go to a good college, don't you?

I've argued in this column previously that I think it's a mistake to require every kid to pass algebra. That goes double for higher level math classes.

If I were education dictator I'd teach all kids a programming language, i.e. coding. Teach them to write a program to solve algebra problems rather than doing the endless pencil and paper calculations they do now.

Then there is language. Colleges like to see three or four years of a foreign language. The problem is that most of us who took high school Spanish or French or German ended up with enough to say "Where is the bathroom?" and not much more.

Most of my students will gain little from those soph and junior year language classes.

Cut out those math and language classes and now you have an opportunity.

Our school is filled with useful, interesting classes that the majority of my students might find interesting.

Instead of Spanish or trigonometry how about graphics, or sculpture or entrepeneurship or forensic biology or wood shop?

How about preparing yourself for a job? Or for a trade school? Or for a junior college?

All these career paths would free up schedule space so that my students could choose classes that appeal to them, not to Harvard.

Read other columns from the Entirely Secondary archive.

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