In the education world, heaps of debates have raged over the decades about how American schools should be structured, what should be taught, how it should be taught and the like.  But most of those discussions are snoozers for the main stream – better left to ivory tower types to grapple with.

What has been quite interesting is the growing debate over college-going:  Should all students go to college?   (I should point out that many have come to define college more broadly than traditional four year universities, to also include our community colleges and technical career programs – collectively “post-secondary education.”)

Regularly perusing a hefty number of education articles, books, and media pieces like I do, I’ve found many many people have a strong (and often emotional) opinion on the topic.   And it’s understandable – it gets to the heart of our disagreement about the purpose of the K-12 system.  While we all might agree that schooling should be a tool to give kids the skills and knowledge needed for future career success (and hopefully civic engagement), the fork in the road quickly emerges when it comes to harmonizing our views on the best pathway for imparting those skills and knowledge.

On one side of the fence are those that don’t believe college is a haven for the masses and the opinions on this side range from defeatist (not all kids have the intellectual aptitude for college-level work) to those who take what they believe is a pragmatic view (not all kids desire to go to college and, in any case, can find gainful employment without a college education in the blue collar ranks.  After all, don’t we need trade-type workers to have a well-functioning society)?

In the other corner are those that think college completion should be a goal for all, what with growing global competitiveness stemming from burgeoning  economies in China and India , skills needed to be successful  in a 21st century economy, etc.

In wrestling with the college issue, here are, I think, some legitimate things to ponder:

1.       How many blue collar jobs (which have undergirded the economic well-being of millions of Americans over the past century) will be available in this country in the next 5, 10, 20 years?

2.       Of the blue collar jobs that will be left in the country in future years, what skills sets and knowledge will they require?  Will they require education beyond a high school diploma?  (It’s easy to say plumbing is plumbing, factory work is factory work.  But then you must look at places like Germany in which workers in car factories are no longer putting wheels on cars, but directing advanced robots to do so.   Hardly the stuff of high school drop outs.)

3.       If America continues to lose out in certain sectors (car making, to give a poignant example), will our workers be prepared to be retrained if not having benefited from education beyond high school)?

4.       What new industries and jobs will be created in the coming decades? What skills will be required?

5.       Which kids should we steer toward the intellectually and educationally demanding professions, and which should we track toward menial jobs?  Who gets to decide? At what point- 1st grade, 5th grade, 9th grade? After all, many kids fail in school because they have bad teachers, don’t learn well in main stream classrooms, and for a host of reasons beyond innate ability.

Of course, none of the questions above have easy (or knowable) answers.  We don’t know how fast we will lose jobs that were once the safety net for high school grads (and dropouts) – only that it will probably happen fast.   We don’t know how technology will change the demands of jobs that we currently think are not so intellectually demanding.  Even further, we have no clue about the professions of the future.  Business titans like Google were barely around just 10 years ago.

Which all begs the question, why should we not do everything we can to maximize career choices for every student?   Will every student choose a college-level education?  Maybe not.

But should we equip them to make that choice?  No question.