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Op-ed: College isn't the only way to achieve the American dream

CHICAGO — The tide is turning on the "college-for-all" movement. Policymakers are finally starting to understand that while in a perfect world every student would emerge from 12 years of public education excited and prepared for the rigors of college, this just isn't realistic.

It's no wonder, really. Though the career earnings of college graduates vastly outweigh the prospects of those with only a high school diploma, the reality of the student loan crisis, the fear of indebtedness and the cultural barriers to a college education (for some, this is the difficulty of mixing with people from vastly higher incomes; and for others, it's more about feeling unwelcome on campuses with hyper-liberal student populations) are increasingly making college a nonstarter.

And it's not just stressed-out students who are making these calculations — parents are also re-evaluating the return on investment of a college education.

According to a newly released survey from the education journal EdNext, this may not be attributable to the often-blamed issue of parents being confused or uninformed about the costs of college.

In the survey, parents were asked whether they would prefer their child to attend a university to earn a four-year degree, a community college to earn a two-year degree, or neither. The survey respondents were divided into four randomly selected groups with one getting no information about costs or benefits of a college degree. A second received information about the earnings differential between adults with associate's and bachelor's degrees and a third was instead told the average costs of obtaining the two degrees. The fourth group was given both cost and earnings information.

What the researchers found was that though the majority of respondents said they wanted their child to pursue a four-year university degree, the percentage of respondents who preferred their child pursue a four-year degree dropped by 7 points when only cost information is provided, and increased by 8 points when respondents received only earnings information.

However, when both these pieces of information were supplied, the percentages of those who said they wanted their children to attend college were essentially the same as when no information about either costs or benefits was given.

Based on these results, one could conclude that college is an intuitive choice that parents make based on their beliefs about whether it could lead to a better life, with financial considerations not a main barrier to college aspiration.

The researchers concluded: "Less-educated families do not seem to lack the information they need to make college and career choices. Their decisions do not change when they are given the opportunity to compare costs and benefits, suggesting no reason to question the rationality of their preferences. … Inasmuch as simultaneous information on costs and benefits does not alter the choices made (on average), it is likely that the choice itself is a conscious one that is partly shaped by available financial information."

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks college enrollments, the number of students in colleges and universities has now dropped for five straight years, and this year 81,000 fewer high school graduates nationwide are heading to higher-education institutions. If fear or cost uncertainty isn't the main driver making parents more wary of college, we must grapple with what, exactly, is causing the cooling attitudes toward higher education and resultant lower matriculation rates.

Is it the roiling social unrest on campuses? Or the fact that, as studies seem to show, even students at elite institutions are graduating with no better critical thinking skills than they came in with?

Most likely is that the college-for-all push has led to a dearth of viable alternatives for those who simply do not want to start their adult lives with more, expensive schooling — even if it's likely to increase lifetime earnings.

While college is an important and desirable rite of passage for many, policymakers must pay more attention to the segment of the population that is looking for different pathways into the middle class.

As Microsoft President Brad Smith said recently during an announcement of a skills-based learning program, "We need new approaches, or we're going to leave more and more people behind in our economy."

Yes. And transitioning away from believing that college is the only way to attain the American dream must begin with acknowledging that non-white-collar work is an important part of our economy deserving of both respect and more attentive cultivation.

Esther Cepeda's email address is