Why College Matters

Last week, I had the opportunity to address a group of 25 emerging social entrepreneurs about education reform. These were rising college seniors who will be placed in summer organizations that are purposed to challenge and change the K-12 educational establishment to improve the dismal outcomes of these systems across the country. I shared with them that only 14% of African American kindergartners, 19% of Latino, and 34% of white children under the age of 5 have a chance to graduate from college with their cohort if current trends continue. More troubling than these statistics is the reality that only 7% of African American male 9th graders will earn a college degree in 10 years (four years of high school, and six years of college). When I was in school, a 65 on a test was the cutoff between passing and failing. If college is the goal of our K-12 educational system, America has a failing grade!

 After my talk, one of the young men challenged my suppositions by declaring that college is not for everyone. My first reaction was one of surprise. Here, I was with a group of highly-selected African American young people who are committed to improve education in America, particularly in school systems and organizations serving students that come from similar backgrounds. Why would there be a dissonant voice among us that would question the value of college?

 It subsequently occurred to me that I invited this discourse during my talk. I challenged these young people to use and advance education that fosters innovation and creativity, rather than focusing on memory and rote learning. The young man’s question reflected that type of “transgressive” thinking (thinking outside of the box) that I encouraged and of which our schools systems—from kindergarten to college—needs more.

 In my response, I shared statistics that show the correlations between education level and two important factors—employment and weekly income. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an American with a bachelor’s degree is almost twice as likely to be employed, and earns 64 percent more money in weekly earnings than those who ended their educational journey at high school.

In addition, I questioned the young man about who should determine whom is worthy of a college education. There are published points of view in some circles that if you are a certain race, gender, age, or come from a particular income group or immigrant status, that you don’t deserve a college education. Rather than supposing who is college material or not, our efforts should be directed at removing structural barriers to college (i.e., finances, readiness, disparate discipline, etc.) so that everyone, regardless of race or origin can make his or her own decision.

More than its obvious impact on individuals, education has a broader multiplicative effect on society. Take employment and income alone. Income translates into tax revenue for governments (local, state, and federal) and lower unemployment reduces entitlement spending. The more educated America is, the stronger her economy. In 2009, the McKinsey Group published a study that found that if America closed all of its achievement gaps in 1998 (international, state-by-state, income, and ethnicity), the US economy would have been stronger by as much as $2.3 trillion (that’s trillion, with a “T”) by 2008. The consulting group summarizes their study by positing that not closing the achievement gaps has the effect of inflicting a permanent recession on the country.

 In addition to its economic impact, according to the College Board, education correlates with numerous other societal benefits. As education levels increase, so too does voting participation, volunteerism, and other levels of societal participation that keeps our democracy functioning.  As a thought exercise, think of what this country would be like if no one voted or volunteered. It would look and feel like some of the most repressive countries on earth. Now think North Korea.

 But college attainment is not all about the economy and jobs. A college education, in its truest and most historical mission is about training minds to foster innovation and creativity. Daniel Pink in his book, A Whole New Mind argues that America can only remain distinctive if it continues to produce ideas spawned from creative minds. An education should discipline and train minds to unleash creativity and synthesize ideas. It should prepare its students—young and old—to not just consume preexisting knowledge, but also to produce new knowledge. And yet, most college students tragically approach their education in the former way as if they are intellectual robots waiting to be programmed. They assume that knowledge is defined and fixed, and their job is to consume it. Rather, a college education (and one could argue all education) should be about learning how to critically think, analyze large amounts of information, solve new and novel problems, and compellingly communicate your point of view in the written and spoken word.

 The young man who was bold enough to question whether college is for everyone should be proud that it was his very college education that not only positioned him to take part in the program but it also trained him to critically analyze my point of view. He’ll have countless professional and educational options when he graduates next year, and certainly will be civically engaged as a social entrepreneur and school reformer. America needs many more like him. 

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • glorialynn says:

    Thanks for offering such a great perspective Karl! I’ve sat on panels where that very statement is often brought up. I cringe every time I have to provide a response (usually around labor statistics as well). The ability to think and contribute to the many books of knowledge used in our world is one I certainly will begin to use!

  • Carlos Encalada says:

    I wonder if what his tenant about wondering if college is or everyone had more to do with a critique of academia? What I mean is that often the land of scholarship and education as conceptualized as something to be consumed seems divorced from more wide reaching social change. In this case the “task” for these rising senior entrepreneurs (from the context of what you described and that I understand) will be focused on how to get increases in the statistics you mentioned. I wonder and question how much the focus of improvement in these numbers is often from the perspective of the individual rather than the structural and institutionalized oppression that all of our systems (education, political, economic, etc.) are steeped in. Colorlines wrote an interesting piece recently how much Presdident Obama’s speech to Morehoise graduates centered around personal responsibility. I wonder how much the American cultural value of personal responsibility and agency can often hijack any sort of discourse about the various ways in which Communities of color are literally targeted and not only under resourced but ostracized and punished for the inequality that has been inherited since the days of slavery and in modern times often manifests in the current incarceration rates. I meant this not to be a rant but as I’m sure you’re aware it’s complicated and I wary when any social inequity feels characterized in an overly individualistic way. It seems you are advocating for the removal of these structural barriers. Part of this I believe must be focused on combatting the bias political media sources that unfortunately control the rhetoric around these issues.