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.