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An essential difference between higher education in the U.S. and most of the rest of the world is that the “sort” of who will or won’t go to university and the sort for what field one will study at university begin far earlier elsewhere.   Between the ages of ten and sixteen (depending on the country), various kinds of testing determine who will or won’t be eligible for post-secondary education.  Some students go into a vocational track, others into college prep.   Those heading into a college preparatory track often begin to study one discipline in secondary school that they will also focus on for the full course of their college study–math, history, philosophy, biology, and so forth.


This different way of sorting who does or doesn’t go to college is founded in different assumptions about the relationship between education and work.  It is also founded in different assumptions about such deep issues as class structure, class mobility, innate ability, and the relationship of education to all of these.


In the U.S., the belated sorting ostensibly happens at the post-secondary level.   This began in the Industrial Age, roughly the first decade of the 20th century, when high school in the U.S went from being largely college preparation to be required, for roughly two years (with variations in different states) for everyone.   The educational and social philosophy behind making secondary education compulsory for all is rooted in the idea that higher education is the single best route to class mobility in the U.S., that college is the best way to raise oneself  from the working to the middle class.   In other countries, that democraticizing ambition is less clearly articulated in the society and the justification for public education is less tied to the idea of social mobility and, perhaps, in some countries, more to the idea of quality of life at all social levels.


In terms of early-age field screening, other national educational systems place more of an emphasis on “ability” or a “predilection” being fixed for most people.  In some there is perhaps even an assumption that such things are innate and deserve early cultivation. One is “good at ” math or “good at” history.  The educational emphasis is far more on focus, on cultivating that talent,  than it is the US system where the emphasis falls more on general education and on cultivating the whole person.   (In Europe, it should be added, much of the liberal arts or general education is thought to be a component of culture more generally, perhaps less a responsibility of schools in and of themselves.)


There are, of course, many plusses and minuses for each system and many exceptions to these very general rules.   However,  one  factor is absolutely crucial to consider in the U.S. in 2014.   All recent research shows that, because of the defunding of public education and the high cost of private, higher education in the U.S., and because those with a college degree still earn higher wages over the course of a lifetime than those without, higher education is no longer the general, democratizing key to social mobility.   In fact, higher education now adds to, rather than ameliorates, income inequality.  The more affluent you are, the more likely you are to attend college and become more affluent.


Given that switch, given the demographic fact that higher education is, for the first time in the 20th century, not the road to the middle class in the U.S., we must now ask ourselves :  does it make sense to prolong the sorting for post-secondary education, especially if that means not providing other important forms of education for those not going to college?  


There are many questions embedded in that one question and I’ll focus on just a few.   First, secondary education has been stripped of good, solid vocational training for a few decades.  This is a social tragedy.  It means everything about the current educational system, especially under the 2002 national policy of No Child Left Behind, is implicitly valued as college preparatory. In the most extreme cases (still extant in several states), if too high a proportion of a high school’s students fail the year-end tests (themselves conceived of as college prep in focus), the school can be closed or privatized, the teachers penalized, fired, or not given raises (again, with variations in different locations).  Almost no where are these live-or-die high-stakes tests geared to the skills, talents, interests, and training of non-college bound students.   The system inherently skews toward college prep, then ranks “successful schools” on that basis.   It’s a circular system that closes some percentage of students (roughly about a third) out of educational success more broadly defined.


Similarly, the system of community colleges (NB: make sure to read the wise comments below), where various forms of vocational post-secondary training are offered, does a great job but, in general, our community colleges are woefully underfunded.  Due to lack of resources, they often can offer relatively little of the advising, mentoring, tracking, and training in study methods and time saving habits that are commonplace at four-year private colleges and that, the research shows, contribute significantly to success.  There are many exceptions, of course, but many community colleges simply don’t have resources for supporting students who are stressed by financial and other exigencies.  If the four-year graduation rate at elite privates is over 90% whereas at community colleges the six year rate is less than fifty percent, it is largely because those with the most financial exigency (jobs, families) and the least preparation are also given the least counseling and assistance (again, due to a lack of resources at many of our nation’s community colleges).  In other words, we assume college is tough and, where there are resources, we construct systems of support to ensure student success–especially among those who have enjoyed the greatest support getting to college in the first place.  Once again, college adds to income inequality rather than diminishes it.  A recent study at Harvard revealed radical disparities in how much Harvard students were monitored, supported, and cared for versus students in a community college blocks away, even though the community college students were far more likely to have outside jobs and responsibilities than the Harvard students.   Any comparison of drop out rates has to factor in these support system disparities.


Similarly, vocational training in fields for which many jobs remain—from landscape architecture to cosmetology or robotic-assisted manufacturing or car repair or audio engineering—tends to be increasingly the realm of for-profit institutions and those are, increasingly, run by major corporations with shareholders who demand quarterly dividends.  That’s a very bad trade off, if the only way to be trained for a trade is through a school whose secondary goal may be your success as a student but whose main goal (structurally) is profit for its shareholders.    That is an innately inequitable system.
So if higher education is no longer the key to upward mobility for most students and if secondary education is implicitly college prep and does not serve as good grounding in the foundational skills necessary for a successful life in vocational fields, we have a problem as a society.  We are contributing to educational failure by not offering a pathway to successful adulthood.  We are not offering those not college bound the training they need and that society needs.  Again, the structure of U.S. education is contributing to rather than helping to erase income inequality–exactly the opposite of our rhetoric and aspirations for U.S. education.


We have to address these social issues from a global perspective and use the successes of each country to help to remedy problems in other countries.   In general, higher education embeds the social assumptions of a society, its highest aspirations and goals for future, productive citizens.  K-12 education cannot change unless higher education changes and unless the public’s interest in producing a certain kind of society (and not just a certain kind of rhetoric) changes.  If in the US the justification for an entire system of education based on democratization and rising to the middle or professional/commercial class is no longer true, then we have to think about new alternatives that encompass new economic realities or, even better, that do a better job of addressing income and social inequality by design, not by broken promises.  That is the challenge.


For those who are not receiving  a U.S.-style education based on the promise of upward mobility to the middle class life as the reward, the issue is different but not contradictory.   If you were rebuilding youreducational system for the society you wanted, what would it look like?   If you were rethinking your system for a world characterized by rapid change and the ability to be trained to change fields, how would you change the early-disciplinary sorting of your university?  What other changes would you envision?  Why?  How?


These are all the deep, profound, international, and philosophical and social questions we hope to address in our “Designing Higher Education from Scratch” project that will be part of HASTAC’s #FutureEd Initiative, part of my MOOC on “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education,” and part of a face-to-face class I’m teaching at Duke starting in January, with partnering classes at Stanford and the University of California at Santa Barbara.  To read more, check out all the resources and partnerships for FutureEd:   Or you can read about it here, in “It’s Not a MOOC, It’s a Movement.”


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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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