Ford: One size doesn’t fit all

A week has elapsed since University President Richard Levin and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. announced the New Haven Promise initiative, and the barbs expected of such a heady declaration have been exchanged on this page and elsewhere. One conclusion has become clear: No matter where the pundits stand on the execution of such a project, everyone seems to agree New Haven Promise is well-intended and a bold step in the right direction. Growing pains are inevitable — but make no mistake, this is a good thing.

So how can we make it better? During his address with Levin and DeStefano, Superintendent Dr. Reginald Mayo declared, “For everything and anything you want to attain in this world, you’re going to need a … college education.” This sentiment is one justifiably fueled by the United States’ recent drop from first to 12th in worldwide college graduation rates. President Obama first cited this change in February 2009, and subsequently promised to “retake the lead” by 2020 and produce a higher share of college graduates than any other country in the world. But in this sudden stampede for more diplomas, we are ignoring the possibility that college, though advantageous for most, is not necessarily the right answer for all. Going forward, New Haven should extend funding towards vocational programs that provide training in other technical fields, from the automotive to the electrical.

As an American and Yale student, particularly one interested in admissions and education, I feel uncomfortable and off-balance advocating anything less than full support for any measure that sends more students to college. Like most Yalies, much of my “adult” life has revolved around a high school salmon run toward higher education and the wonderful three years I’ve spent here since. I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way; this is what I love, and where I excel.

But not everyone wants this, and not everyone should. During a recent trip home to rural northern Michigan, I ran into an old high school classmate who, like 25 percent of our graduating class, opted for trade school rather than college. When we graduated together, I didn’t give him the time of day — anyone who wasn’t going to college, even the nearby state school, clearly didn’t have their priorities in order. But several years down the road, this guy was just as happy, just as fulfilled and just as optimistic about his future as I was. As he explained it, “I could have gone to college just to get a degree, and probably be stuck as a middle manager for the rest of my life. Or I could learn to be an auto mechanic, because I like cars and am good with my hands, and do something useful I actually enjoy.”

So he did; hard to argue with that. After all, isn’t this the same reason I came to Yale — because I believe that what I’m learning is useful and enjoyable? I can’t fix a car engine (hell, I can barely drive stick), so becoming an auto mechanic would not have been a productive choice. The same could be said of my friend’s relationship to traditional postsecondary academics; just as attending a vocational school might have been a waste of my strengths and passions, attending Yale would have been a colossal waste of his.

Funding college for high school students who might not have otherwise made it to graduation is a fantastic pledge for Yale to make. We should be careful, however, as a school and as a country, not to funnel every single student towards a one-size-fits-all form of postsecondary education. Yes, college degrees correlate with higher pay and a slew of other social benefits, as well as an industrious nation. From where we’re sitting, it’s easy to declare a Yale degree or anything close to it as the ultimate goal — because that is what worked for us. But it only takes a step back to recognize that not everyone wants what we want, and many would be better suited to vocational schools and apprenticeships. Why drive students to attend college just because they can, to studying subjects that don’t compel them?

On the list of schools supported by the New Haven Promise program are 12 community colleges that provide certificates in more technical fields. This is a start. The program should expand its mandate to even more specifically vocational programs. This way, high-achieving New Haven students can choose between more of the educational options now available to them, and will have a better likelihood of ending up in a productive, engaging field that fits them best.

The Yale Office of Undergraduate Admissions has long championed the idea of pursuing a “personal fit” in the search for a college, and advises prospective students not to apply here simply “because it’s Yale.” It’s time for the country to apply this mentality on a larger scale, and not ignore other postsecondary options simply “because it’s college.” We will be a country and city of stronger, healthier, happier individuals for it.

Riley Scripps Ford is a senior in Saybrook College.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    It is good to hear someone champion the dignity of manual labor.

    Who is more important in our society? An auto mechanic or a brain surgeon?

    Ask the brain surgeon who lives in the woods of Mt. Carmel on the morning his/her car won’t start and s/he has an emergency at the hospital.

    College isn’t a panacea.

    It has become an industry in America, one which requires consumers to keep it afloat.

    Mercantilia.

  • River Tam

    > But it only takes a step back to recognize that not everyone wants what we want, and many would be better suited to vocational schools and apprenticeships.

    “Yes, college degrees correlate with higher pay and a slew of other social benefits”, but I don’t really think *everyone* would want something like *that*. Some simpletons are probably content fixing car engines.

    > Why drive students to attend college just because they can, to studying subjects that don’t compel them?

    Because without a college degree, they are locked out of a large segment of economic opportunity, and because at 18 they probably aren’t mature enough or a good enough self-assessor to know what’s best for them.

    They can always *choose* not to go to college, but the expectation of attendance should be there.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “simpleton”

    This is offensive and elittist. For shame.
    May you be sentenced to fix your own engines from this day forward.

  • River Tam

    PK: readjust your sarcasm detector.

    My father (and one of my uncles) fixes cars for a living.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Up here in the woods of Vermont finding a good mechanic is a life and death matter. I have only been broke down 4 times in 25 years.

  • vzapana

    Well said, Riley. Although I find it reasonable to expect a high school student to attend college, we as a society should also provide resources to support those who prefer not to attain a liberal arts education. We could improve post-graduation counseling, so that students understand the consequences of choosing attending college vs. attending a vocational school vs. applying for a job right after high school. We must do our best to inform them of all their options and adequately prepare them to make the choice themselves.

  • leecruz

    One size certainly does not fit all. I went to a technical high school and loved it. What I learned in trade school has served me well over the years; however, as I got older, I decided to pursue a different line of work. My ability to do this is directly related to my parent’s commitment to education in spite of their limited formal education and to the work of my English teachers. Mr. Johnson, my 7th grade English teacher, exploited my love of science fiction and got me to read more. Ms. Brown, my 10th grade English teacher, insisted that her trade school students read and discuss A Tale of Two Cities. Dr. Logan, my college freshman English teacher, made me read a novel a week for 12 weeks starting with his personal favorite, Moby Dick. I would not be who I am today were it not for my parents, these teachers and many other people who taught me to love learn.

    Thus while it is true that one size does not fit all, at the same time one does not know one’s own potential at 8, 18 or even 88. It is in our collective interest to encourage people of all ages to aspire to greatness and master as many skills as possible. To aspire does not guarantee success; however, it does lead you down the right road. New Haven Promise will lead students down the road to pursue higher education. How far they go when the economic barriers are minimized is for each individual to decide for themselves.

  • River Tam

    > Thus while it is true that one size does not fit all, at the same time one does not know one’s own potential at 8, 18 or even 88. It is in our collective interest to encourage people of all ages to aspire to greatness and master as many skills as possible.

    Amen.