During my sophomore year in high school, there was a period of three months where I genuinely wanted to be a trucker, much to the chagrin of my educator parents. It may have been typical teenage angst, and it was certainly the fact that I had been reading a lot of Jack Kerouac, but I romanticized the idea of endless open roads and distant horizons and baseball games playing on half-working pit-stop television sets.
Now I cross the country for an entirely different reason. Over the past year, I’ve visited a dozen cities to talk to teachers in and outside our organization about improving our leadership framework. And I always start these conversations with the same question: “What are your ultimate aspirations for our students?” Invariably at some point a debate ignites about whether we should really be striving to ensure every single one of our students goes to and through a four-year college.
During a recent conversation with the teachers in Champaign, Illinois, someone made a statement that I’ve heard many times before: “Not all kids want to go to college. We should embrace free will.”
It isn’t that I disagree—my Teamster-aspirations fifteen years earlier are testament to that—but I’m always disturbed by this sentiment. The night before, I had seen the graphc above on Andrew Sullivan’s blog depicting job losses in the recession, based on a new report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
The numbers couldn’t be starker: the job losses of this painful recession have been much, much worse for those without a college degree. While the college-educated still face a tough job market, the report makes it clear that “a college degree is indeed the best defense against unemployment.”
Thinking of my former students, it’s hard for me to want anything less than for each of them to be green-liners. It’s hard to argue, when looking at such a plain differential in opportunity, that we should aim for anything less than college graduation for all of our kids.
Years ago, during my second week teaching, I had spent an evening reading through the questionnaires that I had given my students to learn more about them. Of my 73 boys, 68 wrote that they wanted to be basketball players. And one of my brightest girls was set on being a beautician and taking over her grandmother’s salon.
It had only taken a week for a group of my boys to realize that Mr. Stanley’s classroom was a better place to eat lunch than the cafeteria, so I took the opportunity to talk to them: “You all want to be basketball players. Why?”
The responses weren’t initially surprising, especially from 14-year-olds:
“Have you seen their cars?”
“And their pads?”
“And their girlfriends?”
But amidst the laughing, the aspiring beautician looked up from her chessboard and said, simply, quietly: “Don’t listen to them, Mr.Stanley. It’s because they look like us.”
It’s because they look like us. Those words cut deep and I’m reminded of them any time I hear an argument for “choice” over college.
We should aspire to have all of our students walk down any path they choose and become anything they want to be—and to reject college if it won’t help them achieve their dreams. But far too often, particularly with low-income students, the rejection of college isn’t an active choice to pursue something different. It’s because everything in society sends constant and often hidden messages that they have a limited set of options, and college is seldom among them. They are constantly bombarded with idols and images that tell them that their best chance for success in life is through sports or looks, not their brains.
If we truly want to ensure that each and every one of our students has free will, we have the responsibility to open the doors to college. A college education is the best way to ensure they truly have the freedom to choose from a full range of life options. And if they reach the point where they have the ability to attend college, and with their confidence high and their knowledge of their multiple options they choose another route, we can embrace those choices then, and only then.