Who Needs College?

It’s hard to imagine anyone today making a serious argument against high school. Still, a  hundred years ago, it wasn’t uncommon.

Early in the twentieth century, as the United States was undergoing a massive expansion of its high school student population, critics around the world scoffed at what they saw as a waste of public resources. High school, they argued, was best suited for a select few: students destined by privilege and pedigree for higher education and elite professions.

Yet America’s more egalitarian model stayed put, and the results were profound.

Economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz have argued that the nation’s high schools—widely accessible and publicly funded—were a key to the American Century, marked by long-term economic growth and declining inequality.

Today, the value of a high school diploma is beyond dispute. For the first time in US history, the high school graduation rate has risen above 80%, and we’re on track to meet a goal of 90% within the next five years.

But a college degree? Not so fast, say some.

Questioning College

More and more, a small but vocal group of commentators are urging high schoolers to reconsider their march to college. Their claim: that higher education offers a poor return on investment. Real learning, they say, can happen anywhere, anytime, often at lower cost than the typical college degree.

Why give up four years (or more) for another piece of paper?

At Green Dot, we welcome a discussion about higher education’s role in our student’s lives. Like all institutions, universities must evolve to reflect the needs of today’s students and the realities of a rapidly changing economy.

But arguments against college are as misguided today as arguments against high school were 100 years ago.

What’s At Stake

Animo South LA Graduates

Among millenials, the benefits of a college degree are greater than ever: better wages, higher employment, greater job satisfaction, increased job security. Even in jobs that don’t typically require an advanced education, workers with a Bachelor’s degree fare significantly better than those without.

Most middle- and upper-class families never question whether their children will attend college; it is simply accepted as fact.

For Green Dot students and other kids from low-income families, the decision is far more complicated. College application fees, financial aid requirements, steep housing costs—these are just a few of the hurdles that make our students hesitate before taking the college plunge. They worry that higher education isn’t for them, that it won’t be worth it.

The college naysayers aren’t helping.

We know that getting into college (and staying there) takes more than good grades. We hold high expectations for all our students and surround them with a positive college-going culture from their first day on campus.

In future posts, we’ll share some of our strategies from 15 years of preparing students for college, leadership, and life. More importantly, we’ll share the stories of students who graduated from Green Dot on their way to extraordinary experiences in college and beyond.

Where others find reasons to doubt our students’ college potential, we see only reasons to cheer.


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