College is not the only road to success

By Tamara Lucas Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

A few weeks ago, I attended a panel conversation on civil rights milestones. One of the presenters focused on the importance of a college education. A college degree has always been a hallmark of rising for communities of color. I was taught that all of my life. But, this time I questioned the premise. What about careers that don’t require college – master carpenters, plumbers, brick masons, mechanics, hairstylists?  A college degree has become the baseline for success in the way that a high school diploma was decades ago.  Should every person in America have as their goal to go to college?

At a time when income inequality is increasing and the price of a four-year degree may require a lifetime of student debt, I contend that we need to shift the “college or bust” culture we immerse kids in from the day they start kindergarten. I’m not saying we shouldn’t encourage kids to go to college – and work to make college far more accessible than it is today – but we simultaneously need to raise up other alternatives as equally viable and valuable options for young people. Programs that offer career training in non-degree-requiring fields need to be elevated and celebrated along with college prep programs. We need to remember that it is not only policy analysts and attorneys and CPAs that are fundamental to a well-functioning society.

Of course, creating non-college pathways that lead to family-sustaining incomes require public policy and philanthropic interventions outside of the classroom, too. It would mean scaling up strategies like cooperative businesses that create wealth-building opportunities. It would mean examining excessive credentialing and licensing requirements that make it harder for individuals to get jobs or start their own businesses. It would mean raising the minimum wage, fighting corporate practices like just-in-time scheduling, and supporting labor organizing.

And, all of us, regardless of sector or industry, should examine our hiring practices. It has become automatic to call for a college degree when seeking to fill a vacancy. What talent and life experiences are we missing out on when that is our primary filter?

The stats about college are screaming out for us to act differently. For example, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, first-generation college students are comprised of 42% Black, 48% Hispanic and 28% of white students. Certainly we should celebrate the number of young people going to college for the first times in their families, but this also means that they may not have the support in applying for college nor in mastering that first year, in particular, from someone who truly understands because they have been through the experience. Then when you consider that the average cost of tuition for public universities is $25,620, plus a college application cost that can be as much as $90 for just one school, against the average household income for Black and Hispanic families at $36,898 and $45,148 respectively, it is clear to see that students of color face extreme barriers to enter and finish college. Pushing all students along a path that has many challenges isn’t working. As professionals, we have always known that one size doesn’t fit all. Why do we accept that reality in so many other arenas, but not as far as education? Being real about this, and raising up alternative pathways to success, is critical if we are to create the equitable society we envision.