That said, "Should everybody go to college?" is the wrong question, both because it doesn't help us think clearly about education and because it pushes to the side exactly the people who are meant to be served by that discussion--parents and students. Here is why it is a bad question:
- Only people on the margins can give a clear answer to it--"yes" or "no". But even worse, everyone else has to temporize--yes in this instance, but no in that. Such temporizing immediately turns an important conversation into an argument about definitions and categories.
- As soon as it becomes a discussion about categories, it is actual students who disappear. In their place are groups of students, who should follow one path or another based on the position of the person answering the question.
- The question answerers (or at least the main voices in the debate) tend to be people who have administrative or financial, but rarely personal interest in the answer. That is, they tend to be people with official roles in the education system facing off against people who want to change the educational system.
- On the other hand, the question leaves the views and voices of families and students at the margin. They don't have the financial or organizational presence to weigh in on such a big question. Instead, they fit into a box--"You took college prep courses and got good grades and can afford college? Well, then college is for you--move ahead." Or, put another way, the question turns people who should actively be shaping decisions into acceptors of decisions/categories made in advance for abstract versions of them.
Is there a better question to use in its place? I prefer, "How important is college?" Here is why:
- It is a question that places students and their families at the center of the discussion, because it can be answered from personal experience and belief in specific ways.
- It is a question that is as meaningfully asked of college-goers as of non-college-goers. After all, lots of students in college place the importance of college below other things--family, jobs, skiing. And lots of people who aren't in college place college high in their list of priorities.
- It is a question that requires families and students to think about school/work/life balance. In other words, it places college into the real lives of students rather than making college-going an activity separate from the rest of life.
- It is a question, the answer to which can lead to real action. Regardless of your view on "should everybody go to college?" almost no one can do anything to move opinion one way or another. But the question "How important is college?" has immediate and actionable (sorry, I hate that word) consequences.
- The question moves power away from central authorities towards the level--personal, family, and community--that is most immediately effected by the decision.
- It is a question that places educational policy and innovation--be it MOOCs, or the creation of new institutions, or financial aid, or scholarships, or admission requirements--in the service of actual human beings, instead of the other way around. If your big thing is MOOCs, then your answer to "Should everybody go to college?" serves MOOCs. But if your big question is "How important is college?" then you have lots of tools at your disposal to shape the answer to the actual needs and desires of actual people. MOOCs for some, community college for others, liberal arts colleges for yet others.