What Students Should High Schools Prepare for College?

Not all of my students intend to go to college. Many of them believe that college would be a waste of time and money, hope to work in fields that do not require an advanced degree, or simply don’t enjoy education. These students would (and have) told me that high schools should not be so focused on preparing people for college. Many teachers and guidance counselors agree, arguing that we need to make schools more relevant to the jobs and job skills that these students need.

I think they are mostly wrong.

Creating high schools where some students focus on vocational, rather than academic skills, seems to me to be putting a benevolent face on an old ugly idea: tracking students, usually based on socioeconomic factors, into two largely segregated camps the upper and middle class students who pursue college level skills, and lower class students who are “encouraged” to pursue their interest in job training, ignoring the fact that so many students just don’t know what they are capable of, or come from backgrounds that lead them to believe that a college education is unattainable.

Professor James Rosenbaum argues that focusing on college skills for all students will give them false hope

Politicians like to make grand promises of getting all children to be doctors and lawyers. But education policy should focus on meeting the needs of the entire society and all students. Otherwise, we will offer only dreams and delusions to roughly half
our young people, who will not only fail to earn a college degree, but also will lack the basic work habits needed to have any productive, respectable job in society.

Rosenbaum’s argument sounds appealing, even logical, but it fails to address what I believe is the most important aspect of education, opening up doors of opportunity for students rather than
closing them. If we write off half of the student population, believing that either they are incapable of advanced thinking or that the skills and knowledge needed for college are somehow superfluous for most of the population, those are exactly the results we will achieve: a society that increasingly limits opportunities and discredits the very idea of academic pursuits.

Will all of my students spend their adult lives closely reading literary texts, doing advanced math, or thinking about the relationships between various cultures? Perhaps not, but schools can’t be in the business of making that choice for them, by pushing a vocational agenda as somehow more
. And shouldn’t we hope for a society where adults are capable of all of those things?

It’s unimaginably arrogant to think that teachers and other school officials should make the choice between college and vocational classes for students, and it’s irresponsible to let students make
the choice without exposing them to both worlds. Movements to make the curriculum “more relevant” for students interested in job training cannot be allowed to become arguments for simplifying or diluting what we teach our students nor what we expect from them.
Teaching students the skills necessary for college is not a form of generating false hope, but an example of believing in human capacity, a faith that some students cannot develop on their own.
If we lose that, what real purpose do schools serve?

None of this means that we shouldn’t provide students–all of our students–with the opportunity to develop vocational skills. Of course schools should, and do, offer these classes and programs.

That’s another example of opening up opportunities that students may not have been aware of, but we do no favors to our students who are disinclined to believe in the importance of education when we reduce our expectations of them. We imprison them with their own expectations and our acceptance of them.

Not all of my students may attend college immediately after high school. Some may never do so. It shouldn’t ever be because I, or any other teacher, decided they didn’t need the skills to do so. Education must be about giving students choices and allowing them to explore their interests, but more than anything, it must be about helping them see what they never believed they could do. To
do anything less is to fail in our most important task.