College for some?

Do too many young people go to college? If so, who shouldn’t go? In a Wall Street Journal debate, Richard Vedder, director of the  Center for College Affordability and Productivity, argued that the public sector, which “funds a big portion of higher-education costs,” must “start making more intelligent use of our limited resources.”

Students in, say, the top one-fourth of their high-school class with above-average test scores should be admitted, typically, to some four-year college, while others with a somewhat lower probability of success—say, those with slightly above-average high-school grades—should be accepted at lower-cost community colleges, with the option of transferring to four-year universities if successful in their first two years. Students with less academic potential perhaps should be subsidized in short-term vocational courses designed to teach a skill, such as driving a long-distance truck or styling hair.

That’s a modern version of India’s caste system, responds Vivek Wadha, a technology entrepreneur and a fellow at Stanford.

So you are suggesting that kids who perform badly in high school or who can’t pass standardized admission tests should be relegated to vocational schools that lead them to careers such as driving trucks or styling hair?

. . . Poor and disadvantaged groups in the U.S. get inferior education—we spend much less on their schools than others. If we do as you say, because their schooling is bad, we would exclude them from the American dream.

California sorts people into the University of California, Cal State and the community-college system based on high-school performance, says Sandy Baum, a policy analyst and George Washington University fellow.

 However, permanently closing broad ranges of educational and occupational opportunities to people who didn’t do well in high school is both unfair and inefficient.

In addition to the unfortunate reality that some people live in communities and attend secondary schools that make it very difficult for them to realize their potential, people mature at different rates. There are people with Ph.D.s who didn’t go to college right after high school or went and quickly dropped out. Keeping this path open is vital.

Individuals should decide for themselves if they’ll learn best by going to college, says James O’Neill, co-founder of the Thiel Foundation’s 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship for young entrepreneurs willing to skip college.