A recent dialogue between Washington Post blogger Jay Mathews and T.C. Williams High School English teacher Patrick Welsh raises important questions about the value of college and the mission high schools push on students, teachers, and parents.  Early this month, Welsh, a frequent op-ed contributor to the Post and other national publications, questioned the validity of the focus of traditional, four-year college as the sole path to success in a piece in USA Today (“Is college overrated?”). Mathews countered with a passionate, but mostly emotional argument for the intrinsic value of not only a college education, but the college experience itself (“Patrick Welsh is wrong about too many going to college”).

Here is my “≤3000 character” comment (which for some bizarre reason failed the Post‘s Comment submission process, so I emailed it), supporting Welsh.

Jay, you seem to argue for the four-year college path from what appears to be primarily an emotional perspective — with which I can sympathize — without really supplying any hard facts to back up your position. Mr. Welsh, on the other hand, acknowledges a background which could support a similar bias, but steps objectively back and questions the status quo while citing research. And Patrick Welsh is absolutely right to question the value of traditional college, especially when spending thousands of dollars and hours at college has become for Washington area families “as instinctual as taking an August vacation.”

Mr. Welsh makes an excellent case that four-year-college should be just one option among many on the path to fulfillment and success. If we’re going to dismiss this position, we should at least match Welsh’s rational approach. Ironically, Trinity’s Pat McGuire, while supporting your position, references a statistic which could vitiate her and your argument (depending on the source and context): she says, “40% of students in higher education today are over age 25,” which makes me wonder what those old-kids were doing right after high school graduation. President McGuire’s emphasis on “continuous learning” is laudable, but we’re wearing blinders to believe that the traditional, four-year college experience is the only path through and to learning.

High schools students ARE inundated inside and outside their classrooms with the mantra that college is the only path to success. Jay, you seem to question this characterization, but I see and hear in my school the same mono-focus Mr. Welsh and MisterRog describe.

Actually, the most important issue that comes from this dialogue is, if high schools — and we parents and teachers — place so much value on college immediately after high school, how good of a job are we doing in aligning the high school experience with college success? Mr.Welsh states, “While T.C. Williams boasts about the 80% going on to college, it makes no effort to track what happens to these kids.” I don’t know of any other high school that tracks its graduates’ college successes either. An examination of the ability to achieve goals is crucial to the success of any organization, but high schools do nothing to see if their customers are actually successful in college.

Questions like Mr. Welsh’s force us to reflect on Bowen’s findings in Crossing the Finish Line that high schools add little to the chances of our children being successful in college. They force us to examine why we’re getting them into college, but not preparing them adequately to be successful once there. Similarly, Ms. McGuire needs to examine why only 30% or so of college students graduate in 4-6 years.

There are many paths to success, to happiness, to fulfillment, and we should never blindly travel one without fully understanding all our options — and our choices. Similarly, I would consider decisions on family, religion, and home just as seriously.

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