Counterpoint

The headline on a Dec. 4 commentary in the Star Tribune reads: "College is not always the ticket to success." Minnesota Public Radio airs a debate around the startling proposition that "too many kids go to college."

Yet another commentary ("Those soaring college costs? Could be the subsidies," Dec. 11) suggests that tuition aid for low-income kids is a bad thing because it drives up costs for everybody else.

Sprinkled among these contrarian views about the value of higher education for the masses -- views that have been around since the post-World War II generation began going to college in much greater numbers -- are a few kernels of truth:

Some graduates of four-year schools earn less than some graduates of two-year schools. A few Ph.Ds are driving cabs. A rare genius gets rich despite dropping out of college.

Some kids in four-year colleges actually might be better off getting vocational or two-year degrees.

Many private four-year colleges are extremely expensive, and tuition and student debt are rising too fast (owing in large part to budget cuts for public institutions).

Jobs for every level of education are temporarily scarcer.

But allowing these nuances and footnotes to foster a new public policy fad -- along the lines that "higher education is not for everyone" -- does a disservice to many young people who desperately need the education premium to join a middle class that today is based squarely on obtaining postsecondary credentials, whether from a community college or an online college or an Ivy League university.

Those ubiquitous bar graphs showing an indisputable link between education levels and individual and societal success remain the larger and more important truth.

Many more kids and adults, not fewer, need to finish some sort of college, broadly defined as any accredited postsecondary program.

And dramatically more kids from our fast-growing communities of color need to graduate if we want sustainable business growth and economic justice.

The drive for more higher-ed attainment is particularly urgent for Minnesota, which already has an economy relatively more dependent on brainpower than most states.

By 2018, 70 percent of all jobs in Minnesota will require some type of education after high school, according to the widely cited "Help Wanted" report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

Some critics of making college readiness the expectation for all students ask why all students should be encouraged to aim for a four-year program when many of the jobs of the future will require a postsecondary credential that falls short of a four-year degree?

The most important answer is found in research demonstrating that the levels of reading and mathematics skill necessary for technical and community colleges -- and in high-skill jobs that don't require a postsecondary degree -- are increasingly the same as those required for first-year courses at four-year colleges and universities.

One of the best trends in American education today is the increasing focus on preparing all pre-K-through-12 students for college success.

This represents an extraordinary paradigm shift from the educational system of the 20th century, which was designed to prepare for college only about one in three students (almost all of them white and affluent).

Four core principles should guide our transition to a 21st-century system focused on postsecondary readiness for all:

First, we should make completion of a postsecondary credential or degree the unambiguous expectation for every student.

Second, we must provide every student with an academically rigorous education from preschool through high school that develops what we call the GASP learning competencies -- for Gather, Analyze, Synthesize and Present -- that are essential for success in college.

Third, we need to focus philanthropic and community resources on implementing our postsecondary completion agenda, with clear benchmarks for progress from cradle to career.

And fourth, we must educate students and parents about higher education much earlier, giving them the "college knowledge" they will need when the time comes to choose a program and institution that matches their needs and aspirations.

To ensure that all students can choose from the full range of postsecondary programs, they must be educated to the standards of the most demanding option.

Those who decry today's growing emphasis on preparing all students for success in college risk taking that choice from them.

 * * *

Kent Pekel is the director of the University of Minnesota's College Readiness Consortium. Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a research and advocacy group focused on expanding economic prosperity.