The Big Lie: College for All

Larry Cuban‘s post, Schools, Degrees, and Jobs, touches upon the dilemma faced by advocates of progressive education reform today.  Essentially, those that proclaim that “College for All” is the best and surest path to success for all students do not speak the truth, or perhaps more precisely, the facts do not support their proclamations.

I could not agree more with Professor Cuban.  Does this make me a defender of the status quo?  No, for it is the status quo, which evolved over the past decade, that is the problem.  Not everyone wishes to attend college.  Not everyone will succeed in college.  So why is it improper to say so?  Worse, why force students to follow a one-track system that derails most?

Social Justice Subverted

Ironically, many that advocate for social justice unwittingly ally themselves with forces that impede progress.  Social justice advocates do so when they support the “one size fits all” approach implicit in a “College for All” mantra.  This support obfuscates realistic approaches, such as the development of trade skills or other non-college-track offerings, rendering them unpalatable when they offer the greatest hope for a diverse student population.  Worse, a generation of students, now adults numbering in the millions, lay strewn across America deceived by the very system that promised them a path to success.

Progressive Marketing Myopia

Life’s complexities complicate communicating the truth. As advertisers, marketers, and politicians know, capturing the hearts and minds of the masses requires simple messaging imbued with symbolism. “No Child Left Behind,” “College for All,” “Race to the Top,” and “No Excuses” serve this purpose well. Who would want to leave a child behind? Or who would oppose any student from attending college?  Whether any of the legislation, policies, or mandates that flow from these tag lines effectively achieves the end goal is nearly irrelevant once they become part of the vernacular.  Worse, the altruistic nature of these sound bites serves the purpose of opposing sides leaving the audience confused as to the true intent of each.

Hence, in a twisted turn of fate, many who advocate for social justice, equity, and access inadvertently support solutions that impede more effective approaches to public education.  Rather than fighting for the diverse student population, these advocates for underserved populations find themselves co-opted into supporting ineffective public education offerings. Subsequently, students struggle to obtain needed knowledge to graduate high school and to enter college only to dropout once they must stand alone with minimal supports. Meanwhile, investors in higher education continue to count their profits as wave upon wave of recent high school graduates commit themselves to financial burdens they trust will be repayable, but soon realize the deceptive design delivers lifelong debt and not a path to financial freedom.

Real Choice

What should be done?  Easy; straightforward – at least on one hand.  Offer families a choice for their children’s education.  No, not a voucher based system where they choose which school their children attend, as the “free-market” camp proposes.  Instead, establish curricular choice in public schools where families have more of a direct say in their child’s future.  Parents know their children best, after a child’s teachers, so empower them to decide if taking algebra 1 for the third year in a row makes sense; effective empowerment entails education by the way.

But that will prevent a child from entering college!  Perhaps, but doubtfully.  The odds of a child passing with a grade acceptable to most colleges diminishes rapidly if they have not yet learned a subject after two or more years of instruction; while I do not presently have a citation for this assertion, I task anyone who doubts it to spend a month or so in the classrooms of a Title 1 school and then ask themselves if they still disagree.  More importantly, having the choice to select an alternative does not mean a student MUST switch.  Students can always stay on the same path.  However, it does offer a lifeline to both the student and his/her family who struggle with no hopeful end in sight.  The student is not destined to be a high school dropout, or holder of a high school diploma in name only since they struggled through their courses barely understanding the content; better still, they are not stuck in a situation where they are unable to apply much of their college-track education in any revenue producing fashion.

The Challenge

What prevents curricular choice?  Multiple factors come to mind to include: 1) an aversion to multiple pathways for fear of a return to discriminatory practices, or just the insinuation thereof; 2) an ingrained resistance to change of a century-old institution: public education; and 3) diminishing public funds for education as we know it today, much less one that might incur greater up-front costs for lower overall costs to our country.

Discrimination is a shameful practice that left an indelible scar on our nation’s history.  However, conflating a multiple pathway approach with discrimination erroneously assumes causality.  In the past, students had limited to no choice in their assigned educational track; racism ran rampant.  Today, while the potential exists, overt discrimination stands little to no chance, as society is no longer as homogeneous, and thankfully more enlightened.  Additionally, in our data driven world today, it is much easier to get access to information that would expose such practice, leading to criminal and civil liabilities.  More importantly, and sadly, forcing all students onto a single path, with minimal alternatives, if any, results in a significant mismatch in expectations, abilities, interests, and ultimately creates an ever-growing population of the disenfranchised.  Perpetuating this arcane approach hurts underserved student populations more than any multiple pathway approach.

Institutions resist change.  It is their very nature.  Unless, and until, society forces change, public education in the U.S. will stay stuck in a 19th century model, albeit with iPads scattered among students.  Technology benefits notwithstanding, the curricular, pedagogical, structural, and other attributes of public education today, especially at the secondary level, perpetuates a post-industrial revolution model for education when the benefits of the information revolution of the past two decades offer many more opportunities for individually crafted learning experiences, better matching a students needs, abilities, and interests with a vast array of knowledge and skills that our society values.  This knowledge and skill is not limited to diagramming sentences, solving systems of equations, or determining the pros and cons of the New Deal, although it does not prohibit them either.  A truly, individualized education is not as far-fetched as it may seem; however, time, effort, and money are required to model a successful multiple pathway program for secondary students that meets the needs of students and society alike.

Speaking of money, I suggest that net costs to our society will lessen over time as a more educated and employed population rids itself of the vestiges of urban plight associated with rampant crime.  This will take a decade or two to come to fruition.  Yet, it will not without providing students choice in their secondary education.  Fortunately, in a virtuous cycle, this trend will lessen the numbers in our society who must turn to social welfare programs, and other social entitlement programs, simply to survive.  Thus, so many more can control their own destiny and contribute positively to our society.

Where do we go from here?

Holding us back from significant improvement in public education, the false belief that everyone should attend college paralyzes a nation, spurning students and not empowering them.  A mantra that everyone deserves the opportunity to go to college is more realistic, and proper.  Access to a high-quality, public education must be available to all.  However, forcing everyone to comply with a myopic view of education limits our great nation’s longevity; a simple change extends it by centuries, if not millennia.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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10 Responses to The Big Lie: College for All

  1. Mike says:

    One of the primary ways my views about education have changed since I started teaching is that I have become skeptical about making everyone go through the same curriculum, and testing to make sure all students are learning at the same pace. The fact is most kids are not learning algebra well because they don’t care about it. Forcing everyone through this gauntlet is not resulting in more STEM majors.


  2. Dave ( also a career changer Math teacher ),a few years ahead of you. says:

    The fallacy you discuss may encompass the biggest issue we face in education. The institutional , political, and social forces that keep us in this maelstorm are so powerful, that only the economic realities of the middle class exerting their political will through the electoral process will provide an escape. Not for a while. Electile dysfunction must be treated first.


  3. Michael Paul Goldenberg says:

    What’s worse is that it’s hard to find work that doesn’t inevitably lead to some group/organization touting “College For All” and “Algebra For All.” As a progressive educator with a deep commitment to social justice, I find myself wanting to scream when I realize that my viewpoint makes me well-positioned for charges of “racism” from both the right and left. Obama doesn’t get it. Obama’s foes don’t get it. I doubt any politician of weight in this country gets it.

    Whatever happened to vocational education? I wish I’d taken advantage of it. I wish my son COULD have had access to it. He’d be in a lot better shape now, about to graduate high school and not ready to start college (despite being courted by most of the top colleges in the country). Instead, he will likely take some McJob.


    • Hi Mike. It is a shame that so many rally around slogans that ironically cause more harm than good; their simplicity is tantalizing, irrespective of their efficacy. And as you point out, those that recognize their flaws are castigated if they point out its shortcomings. It’s almost Orwellian.


  4. Pingback: Math Students Repeating Courses Without Success | Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher

  5. navigio says:

    my devil’s advocate gene is twitching..

    Firstly, is it really the case that our strategy is ‘college for all’? My impression is that its more the opportunity that we offer. That said, I understand that things like multiple years of high-school math, and focus on A-G courses as graduation requirements does make it appear that we think all kids should go to college. But I dont think our implementation says anything like this. First off, a quarter of our kids dont even finish high school. Then, only about 40% of the ones who finish high school go on to a 4 year college right away. I think one of the dilemmas with focusing on an education as an economic tool is that we then tend to prioritize its programs based on whether they will ‘pay off’. I think this is why vocational classes have been pushed out of high school.

    Quick tangent. I am interested in your observation as a relatively new teacher who pays attention to the impacts of diversity in teaching. As you know, one thing that happens in Title 1 schools is you can have very differing levels of achievement, even within the same classroom. One theory goes that mixing achievement levels in a single classroom is a good thing (expectations and environment), but of course it is much more difficult to differentiate instruction to tailor to the child’s needs in such an environment. And alternative theory is that ‘segregating’ such that whole classrooms are much nearer to the same level of achievement allows a more efficient manner of teaching (less differentiation required). I am particularly interested in your thoughts on which makes more sense, especially in math. thx.


    • College for All is a common mantra that many adopt for misguided reasons. I do not believe there is any formal strategy that everyone must go to college. However, much of the emphasis in secondary curricula is such that college is the intended destination, with little to no preparation for alternative destinations. The reasons behind the single path approach include preventing a return to discriminatory practices such as those that occurred with “tracking” to ensuring everyone is prepared for the most selective universities and to building up the ranks of the highly educated for higher skilled professions. With these as tacit goals, our education system is held to unrealistic expectations, and assailed as ineffective accordingly. While there is much that could and should be improved in education today, placing the majority of the focus on the individual teacher, or even school, is foolish, as they have the least impact when compared to exogenous factors, especially for students living in poverty. That is not to say that a teacher does not make a difference, for many have, do, and will continue to do so. It is just unrealistic to expect an individual, or even collection of individuals within a school, to overcome the impacts of multiple factors outside of their control.

      Regarding heterogeneous versus homogeneous classrooms, there are pros and cons to both, as with anything in life. From my perspective, a hybrid implementation of these has the greatest potential where students spend time in ability level groups improving their specific skills in hopes of advancing to the next level while also spending time integrated with a wide range of abilities to benefit from the diversification and covariance. In some ways, I implement aspects of this method in my classrooms.


  6. Dave ( also a career changer Math teacher ),a few years ahead of you. says:

    Everyone says the right stuff. But we have little power. The educational establishment and the governmental authorities work hand in hand with the private purveyors of funded services and products to perpetuate the myth of an educated populace. I do work in some schools with legitimate vocational type programs ( along with the required minimum academic structure ). Although my personal sample is small, these schools seem more under control and there is an increased evidence of work being accomplished in classes. If you have recently hired carpenters, electricians, or plumbers, you know that those who are skilled and have decent social skills invariably are making good livings and perhaps are even better mentally adjusted than their less manually skilled counterparts.

    They really are telling almost all the students that they should be going to college but of course maybe 30 % are ready for a 4 year school. So many more borrow money, go to a half baked institution, drop out and owe on their loan. Of course some students mature later than others and achieve beyond expectations. Roughly half the courses in community colleges are remedial, not so bad, but it lengthens the time for college/ career oriented learning. ( I also have some CC teaching experience.)

    The common core concept makes sense from the point that real thinking, and not just procedural fluency is necessary for true knowledge acquisition.

    Mr. Author, Your work needs greater distribution. Unfortunately, the style may be a tad too erudite for the more general audience to appreciate and be called to action.


    • Thanks, Dave. I agree the stye I use for much of my writing on this blog would need to change for a general audience. When I have time to improve my skill in that area, I hope to do so. For now, I’m a one trick pony from a writing style perspective. Cheers!


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