PRESSURE: Two Perspectives on Pressure in Higher Education

by Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, EPI International/Educational Policy Institute

The Boston Globe published a piece on Monday (thanks to for their reference) on the practice of adding a ‘gap’ year between high school and college. In Europe, many students take a gap year, sometimes through military service, sometimes through travel and other pursuits. But in Canada and the US, there is a push to continue education and get into the workforce. The article quotes Middlebury College’s (Vermont) Admissions Dean, Robert Clagett, as saying “By encouraging more students to step off the treadmill and smell the roses, they can kind of reacquaint themselves with what their education is all about.”

We have a practice in North America, and especially in the United States, to up the ante, so to speak, about the need for further and further education and competitiveness in the workforce. Competitiveness is not a bad thing. In fact, it is very important to stimulate people, societies, and economies. But Clagett makes an important distinction to the issue of educational options and the importance of finding out the “meaning of life.”

The pipeline for future professionals and college students gets longer and earlier all the time. It isn’t just about graduating from high school, it’s about graduating from the right courses. With the right extra-curricular activities. With the right level of volunteerism. With the right parents, in some respects. The pressure on students is enormous. If they don’t take that extra AP class, or they don’t get into IB, or they don’t get into the mathematics and science academy for high school…. These are some of the things thrown at students.

Then they graduate from high school and two months later become college students. Some will graduate in four years. Or five. Then they start the job search and get on the hamster wheel of life. Or graduate school. Then work. Then more school. I am a lifetime learner. Never took time off. Graduated from high school. Went to university for five years. Worked for five years. Took a master’s degree for a year. Worked for two years. Went full-time for Ph.D. program for 3 years. Then worked. And keep working.

The gap year provides an opportunity to stand back and take stock of one’s brief life before making some decisions that will impact the remainder of his or her life. And for many students who don’t really know what they want to do for a career, this provides that opportunity to do something else which may help them find out who they want to be.

Of course, in doing so, a young student “gets behind” his or her friends and colleagues. That’s the attitude. But college and university are different. We need to depressurize the situation. Perhaps de-escalate is a better term.

Then more pressure…

Today, the College Board came out with a wonderful report entitled Coming to Our Senses, which outlines 10 recommendations on how to make America more competitive in the global economy. The report is a culmination of The Board’s focus on ensuring that 55 percent of Americans have at least an associate’s degree. To be fair, I did not read the entire report, although I was impressed with what I did read and how it was put together. I don’t think I can argue with any of their 10 recommendations.

But I also did not see from where the number “55” was born. As with Lumina and other organizations, I’m not sure where that number comes from. I am publically asking for someone to send me the numerical calculation for 55 percent—over half the population—to earn at least an AA degree? I want to see that number, because I don’t buy it.

Do we need that number to make people take interest? Do we need that number so we can feel like losers when we don’t meet it? What does the number 55 represent?

Why isn’t our goal to reduce the educational and workforce gaps between those who are under 150 percent of poverty and those who are affluent? Why don’t we reduce the gap in the professional capabilities of teachers teaching in poverty areas compared to those in affluent districts and school catchment areas? Why don’t we focus on the gaps in high school graduation rate, the postsecondary matriculation rate, the postsecondary completion rates, and the postgrad/professional school access and success rates for students of lower-income students and their much more advantaged and affluent peers?

Why 55? Sammy Hagar couldn’t drive 55. Nor can I. That number was another prime example of an entity—this time the US federal government—creating a whole policy agenda on a number that “someone thought was right.” 55. It was too slow. Bad policy.

But we need 55 percent of associate’s degrees and higher? With no real thought about what our economy needs in terms of skills? Is 55 across the board, regardless of where we have a glut or dearth of workers?

The perspectives of Lumina, The College Board, and many other organizations and the US federal government are not wrong. They are all pushing a very positive agenda, especially for those who are historically underrepresented in higher education. But numbers are dangerous. You succeed or fail. We don’t need 55 and I want someone to show me the research on why we need 55. Not 50. Not 60. 55.

I want to see us reduce the gaps. Not bring the ceiling down, but the floor up. Those numbers I can work with.

Show me 55.

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