Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Is a 4-year degree program right for every student?

One of the primary goals of the organization that I work for is to get all of our students accepted to and enrolled in 4-year degree programs. The idea behind this is that graduates of 4-year program make more money over their lifetimes than graduates of 2-year programs or those who do not go to college. Additionally, students who go to a 4-year school are more likely to stay in school than those in other programs. Lastly, more often than not 4-year programs have a greater emphasis on the Liberal Arts than two year programs which usually focus on specific occupations, thus 4-year programs are considered simply better or more intellectual.

So, sitting here with my Liberal Arts school degree in Religion, in a job I adore but which is in no way financially supportive, with the knowledge that if I decide to finally get a "real job" I'm going to have to go back to school to get a degree in something actually useful- I find myself wondering if a 4-year degree really is the right thing for every student.

Is getting a liberal arts degree specifically and a 4-year degree generally more of a privilege than a necessity? Is forcing our students into 4-year programs only setting them up for failure?

When talking about this with Mitch yesterday after session he mentioned the cases of a few of his students who he is not sure should be going to 4-year schools. Some, he worries, are simply not ready for college- they rarely show up for session, they have poor writing skills, or they have a very difficult time verbally communicating in English. He worries that these students, even if they get into 4-year schools, will end up dropping out because they will be too discouraged and not receive the support they need. Or, there's the student who has a child and very little motivation. Could a 2-year program be a quicker path to a career for this student so that he could start truly providing for his family? Then there's the student who is dead set on being an auto mechanic- there are a few 4-year programs that do exist in that area, but the majority are definitely two year programs. Should that student be forced into a 4-year program simply because that's what the organization has decided is the best place for him regardless of the incredible additional expense and potential time wasted by choosing that program over a 2-year program in the same area?

Then I think of some of my students who are in similar situations. One of them, who wants to be called AMP in this blog (she'll be mentioned again, so I guess it's good for her to have a fake name) really wants to be an orthotist or a prosthetist- aka someone who designs and makes orthotics and prosthetics. When she approached colleges at the mini college fair held at our school all of the representatives told her about pre-med programs and how she would need to go to medical school for that degree. In reality, its a 2-year program at most. Or, there's my student who wants to be a pastry chef and would love to go to the Culinary Institute of America or Le Cordon Bleu. However, both of these schools are considered for-profit institutions that we are supposed to steer our students away from because of their less than stellar retention and graduation rates. I understand the concern, especially with for profit schools that are not specialized, but I also have no interest in sending my students to schools where they cannot study what they want.

So I wonder, then, if our emphasis on 4-year degree program is really motivated by theories of social mobility. Education is widely considered one of the primary sources of social mobility. All of our students are low income and I'm sure that parts of the unspoken goals of the organization is to help them move up in the socioeconomic class ladder. Is it then classist of me to believe that some of our students would be in some ways better off to do shorter programs that would land them in jobs faster rather than enrolling in longer term, less career specific, more expensive programs? Or, is that a good suggestion that would help our students more gradually change their social class standings: instead of jumping from low income, potentially non-educated groups to over educated liberal arts minded groups- taking a brief stop at the educated, hard working class that would actually allow them to support their families and communities?


  1. Hi Abby! I think this post is really interesting--especially since I think that my opinions on this (similar to yours) made me not get a job I was interviewing for.

    Especially having a 4-year-degree that doesn't seem to be getting me a job anytime soon, and the ones that it could seem to also accept a 2-year or no degree, I've been wondering the same thing about the implied superiority of a 4-year degree. I think that if people want it, a 4-year degree should be accessible to everyone, but if someone can be just fine with a 2-year degree, or if it makes more sense for them, then why discourage it?

  2. Nope it's definitely not the answer for everyone. People that work many of the essential jobs in this economy should not and do not need to spend the time and money at a four-year institution.

    Part of the problem why you, me and seemingly everyone else has to get more education could very well be explained by economics. The signaling model of human capital says that firms look at how much education we have as a signal that we are hard-working and persistent. The problem being that as more and more people get 4-year degrees it gives them less and less separation from their peers. So the only choice they have to show their skills is through more education. Sad times for all of us.

    No one should be forced into more education than they desire (not that they'd accept it anyway since as you say they'll just drop out). I do agree with the policy of steering them away from for-profit colleges. There's nothing good that comes from those scoundrels.