The cost of college has become an increasing topic of conversation in our field over the past couple of years. There have been varied responses on many levels regarding these issues. There are positive ones: policy discussion on student loan rates, pondering the ramifications of the college score card, and developing ways to increase access. Others are damaging, such as implying that students should stop whining. One response that always seems like it MIGHT be productive until I start to unpack it is the statement:
“College is not for everyone.”
My first reaction to this statement is “duh,” which is my ineloquent way of stating “yes, that is true…” – and it is. Not everyone should be in college. I think that often when I work with students who are doing it because “it is what people do,” rather than because there is a goal in mind. I also know that there are other ways to become educated and/or prepared to find a good job. I think there are times in Student Affairs when we become myopic enough to forget that there are many roads to education and success.
Yet what I am getting at here is not whether or not all paths should lead to college or university. I am pointing out that when we start to have the conversation about college and costs and the phrase, “college is not for everyone” comes up, what I hear is a classed statement that implies that because one cannot afford college, they should not be there. It reminds me of the “tracking” that was done in my high school, wherein the children of the professors and staff at the university were encouraged to get Regents diplomas (part of the NY school system) and take AP courses, while the children of the farmers and day laborers were encouraged to take agriculture, home-economics, wood shop, and trade studies. Are either of those “tracks” actually better than the others? No. Did our educational system make it seem like there was? Yes. Were the decisions of who went where incredibly classist? Yes. Were there students in each category who were likely mis-tracked based on how they presented? Of course. What might come up were we to have a conversation about why some students were tracked one way or the other?
“Well, college is not for everyone.”
I know, because I’ve said it. And when I say I’ve said it I mean that I have in my past made this statement with all of the classist implications I am pointing out. I am sharing that I have done this so that I can help others to recognize that if they have ever made this statement, they should take the time to unpack not just what they meant, but the potential impact of the statement.
Context matters…and when we have conversations about the cost of college it is easy to create a context in which we are sending classed messages to our students and ourselves that are unfair, biased, and create an environment that lacks safety for students who have likely gotten the “college is not for YOU” message loud and clear from the time they understood what college is.
So is college for everyone? Surely not.
Just remember how and when this concept is communicated can mean so much more than the words themselves.