One dropout at a time. Cartoon courtesey of Lisa Benson

One dropout at a time. Cartoon courtesey of Lisa Benson

Are there too many teens attending America’s colleges? Marcus Winters says more of them need to attend. Robert VerBruggen, on the other hand, argues that since 25 percent of college grads are allegedly working in jobs that don’t require college degrees, the answer is no.

The reality is that the argument is much more complex than either of them let on.

While a good portion of college students are working in jobs other than the ones for which they aspired, it is likely as much a failure of them to understand that college is not just about the degree. As a son of one of my former bosses learned recently, college is also about networking, building the relationships that can translate into jobs and future opportunities. Even before the recent recession, there were plenty of journalism majors who never realized that you had to also work at a college newspaper, freelance prolifically, and gain internships in order to move into the professional ranks.

The bigger problem is that far too many students of all socioeconomic backgrounds are ill-prepared for college in the first place. This problem lies not so much with universities, but with the abysmal instruction inside America’s public education system. More than one-third of college freshmen and sophomores reported that they took at least one remedial reading or math class, according to a 2006 study by the U.S. Department of Education. It starts early with the social promotion of students who should be held back and given different teachers who can help them get up to speed. After elementary school, the additional preparation for college — in the form of Algebra 1 classes in the eighth grade and solid college-level reading courses in ninth grade — doesn’t come early enough.

And then there is the nature of the comprehensive model used in America’s public education system, in which students and their parents aren’t given the choice to give their children a college prep education in the first place. The fact that teachers and guidance counselors are the gatekeepers to these college prep courses means that many students not deemed college ready for subjective reasons never get the shot they need until high school — if at all.

The question isn’t whether or not there are too many kids attending high school. The real question is how to improve America’s public schools — and give them the kind of enriched education that gives children as many choices in life as possible. Sure, not every kid will attend college. But not every kid can also become a plumber. Besides, even a plumber should be literate enough to quote Chaucer — and aspiring welders need Trigonometry and Algebra in order to become apprentices.