America Needs More College Alternatives

This post is part of our forum on Don Peck's September story, "Can the Middle Class Be Saved?" Read James Fallows's response to Don here.

I just saw Frank Bean, the immigration scholar, speak. He made a brilliant point: The number of native white and black men with high school diplomas in the U.S. has been shrinking as more and more men have been getting post-secondary educations. As the number of native-born men with 12th-grade educations has dwindled, immigrant men, largely from Mexico, have been making up a larger portion of this category. While experts cannot agree how much Mexican immigrants and their children are assimilating (that is, how well they are making their way up the social class ladder), Bean noted that the white and African American male workers are the ones going head-to-head with these immigrant workers. 

In this competition, immigrant men have the edge, not simply because they take lower wages and don't have union protection, but also because, as a group, they have lower rates of criminality and drug abuse--and that may become even more true as today's out-of-work blue collar workers remain out of work for a year or two or more. So as more and more native high-school-educated workers find themselves unemployed (and possibly become unemployable), Bean speculates that immigrant workers may fill the gap, and get many of the blue collar jobs that return, as we recover.

Don't get me wrong: I am a huge proponent of immigration, and believe immigrants are critical given our aging demographics, are good for declining fertility rates, and are good for the economy. And, as it happens, I am the daughter of two first-generation immigrants. I believe immigration strengthens our nation, and is an important part of our national identity.  But I'm worried about the cultural dynamic that would result from widespread, chronic unemployment among native-born men (black and white), with many new opportunities going to recent immigrants.

We only need watch the news (or take note of history) to see how politically destabilizing it can be when lots of young men feel dispossessed and locked out economically, and the issues of race, ethnicity, and nationalism get thrown in the mix. In Egypt, the young men who would play such a key role in the revolution were stuck in a state of "waithood." This is how people in Egypt described the plight of young men with no jobs, and who, lacking economic opportunities, had no way to join society as full adults, namely as husbands and fathers.

The other issue is that trying to solve the problem by sending everyone to college is simply misguided. With one out  of two kids not finishing four-year colleges, and community college completion rates as low as 25 or 30 percent (no one has precise numbers), I have come to think that  the "college for all" movement is a self-destructive  fantasy - and I am a college professor.

Americans hate the idea of educational tracking, and  I'm not proposing is a system that would give teachers and administrators all the power to determine a teenager's educational trajectory. But right now the only tracks are "college" or "bust."  We need to provide alternative pathways for high school students, including those that would mix classroom learning with apprenticeship and applied-skill training.

What would be wrong with creating a system that honors a young person's dreams but also respects the practical concerns of a kid's abilities and talents? What purpose does it serve to tell a kid graduating from high school who tests below 9th-grade levels in math and English that he or she should head off to college to become a doctor?

No other system in the developed world would allow such a thing to happen. It wastes people's time, money, and resources.  And it is soul-destroying for the young people who endure it. Foundations and philanthropists should be looking to programs like those in Germany where kids can finish the equivalent of high school (for free) with the training to enter the full-time labor force in a good job. Here, high school graduates end up in community colleges only to languish in remedial courses when they could be in trade and vocational programs preparing them for work that is respected, well-paying, and secure.