EDITORIAL: Not everyone is college material

April 7, 2012

It sounds heretical to say in an era when leaders in government, education and business are working hard to increase the state’s abysmal, No. 44 college-attainment ranking, but not everyone should go to college. Students who aren’t prepared for a four-year program or refuse to go for personal reasons need to be routed to training and occupations better suited to their interests and abilities.

They would find more satisfying work, the economy would benefit from their skills and colleges wouldn’t be saddled with unprepared students.

Last week’s story by Kathleen McLaughlin pointed out that manufacturers are desperate to find skilled workers. Years of headlines about factory closings and downsizings have convinced young people that the future is in anything but industry. Manufacturing’s reputation is so dour that a mere 260 students are enrolled in Ivy Tech Community College’s advanced manufacturing program, coincidentally as baby boomers begin to retire and create tens of thousands of job openings.

So, while low-skill jobs have vanished, the world is an oyster for the person who can troubleshoot complex assembly-line equipment.

Bankers, lawyers, accountants and other professionals have a stake in this, too. They will lose valuable clients if manufacturers pull out of the state because they can’t find workers.

What’s in it for colleges if students are pointed in the right direction? An informal study conducted recently by a longtime Ball State University economics professor concluded that universities are admitting so many unprepared students that profs are likely to come under pressure to dumb down courses and inflate grades.

In the study published on the John William Pope Center for Higher Education website, T. Norman Van Cott found that most students taking his microeconomics class score nearly two letter grades lower than honors students and are absent from class four times as often. “Current proposals to increase college enrollments won’t magically increase Americans’ academic abilities,” he concluded.

If anything is a foregone conclusion in Indiana, it’s that more college graduates are needed to improve income growth. Every student who is capable of college-level work should be encouraged to go.

Yet no one benefits when unprepared or disinterested students are herded into colleges. The challenge is to sift students who would fare best in college and those who wouldn’t, and then point them to suitable occupations.

Many of the jobs considered “hottest” by the Indiana Department of Workforce Development require training but not a four-year degree—some sales positions, licensed practical nurses, computer support specialists and bookkeepers are just a few.

Meanwhile, schools must continue their efforts to improve their product. It’s not time to turn down the urgency shown in the past couple of years by the General Assembly and state Department of Education.

The intensity should help schools better identify which students belong in college, and which ones are better suited for jobs that will go begging otherwise.•


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