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Stefanie DeLuca

Stefanie DeLuca, an associate professor of sociology, has spent much of her career studying young people transitioning into adulthood. Currently, she and three colleagues are working on a book that addresses the “college for all” attitude in the United States and its effect on American teens. Here is her quick take on a question that—especially given the state of the U.S. economy—is on more minds than usual:

Q: Is college right for everyone?

A: In America, we tend to think of college as a guarantee. In fact, it’s more like the lottery—but worse. At least when you play the lottery you know your odds of winning. Most kids don’t realize that the odds of winning “the college lottery” are lower than people tell them.

Consider that about 70 percent of American kids attempt college within a year of graduating high school, and the majority do not finish. There is some truth to the benefit of going to college. On average, most students who finish college earn more than those who don’t. But the devil is in the details: You have to finish college for it to really be worth it. What most people don’t realize is that since the 1970s, college completion rates have stagnated. The number of people going to college has increased substantially, but the number that finishes has not.

What’s clear is that if you don’t finish high school, you’re generally worse off than those who do. That’s not news. But what’s surprising is that those who graduate high school don’t look a lot different from those who tried college but didn’t finish. The margins are very close, in terms of gaining full-time employment, owning property, income level, and a couple of other measures of life satisfaction.

We should provide better options. There was a time when high school students had a choice to go through either a vocational education or a college prep curriculum. Now, VocEd has fallen out of favor. It turns out, in a lot of neighborhoods where I do my fieldwork, we have students wishing there was an opportunity to learn a trade in their school—they are dying for it. Instead, what kids have is this push
to go to college at the expense of any other option, and if they don’t finish they are demoralized and unprepared for what’s next. We should help them prepare for both the labor force and for college. You rarely see that anymore.

We also need to change the discourse so it is just not so “verboten” for kids to want to work after high school. And if kids do go to college and don’t finish, let’s make it less penalizing for them with loan forgiveness or job training backup programs.