Does It Have To Be College?

This article is a sidebar to “The Old College Try,” Philanthropy, spring 2010.

The weight of philanthropic (and elite) opinion rests on the idea that college is necessary for success in modern American life—and for many, college means a four-year degree. The dialogue is changing somewhat—see, for example, the rise of the more inclusive goal of a “high-quality post-secondary credential” and more support for community colleges—but not enough for some. Critics of this ideal include Charles Murray (in his widely discussed Real Education) and Matthew Crawford (in his best-selling Shop Class as Soulcraft). Moreover, some donors are frustrated at the lingering bias toward four-year degrees and against vocational or career-focused training.

Andrew Grove, the former CEO of Intel, argues that to make the four-year degree the standard is to erect a “ladder to the sun,” when many people would be happy with “a ladder to a middle-class existence.”

Grove conducted an informal survey of philanthropic higher ed initiatives in the San Francisco Bay area. “Every single program . . . emphasizes four-year college,” he says. He took a different approach. As Grove explained in a speech at a Philanthropy Roundtable meeting last year, starting in 1999 the Grove Foundation offered $5,000, three-year scholarships for practical, career-focused training for at-risk students with the potential to enter the middle class.

The results were disappointing: only 25 percent of scholarship recipients completed their training within three years. By 2008, recruiting for the scholarship became increasingly and mysteriously difficult. Why? “One of our participating teachers, who was helping us locate and recruit students, made a comment several years ago that I laughed at at the time, and I think it captures the essence of what we are dealing with,” Grove explains. “He said, ‘The students you’re looking for don’t exist; that’s why we can’t find them. They don’t exist because they are pushed, kicked, enticed, encouraged, and shamed into going on to a four-year college education.’”

Linda Childears, president and CEO of the Denver-based Daniels Fund, believes “it’s unrealistic to think that all students can do college-level work or should do college-level work—but all students should have the opportunity. I worry that we’ve lowered our standards to make college accessible to everyone.”

Cable pioneer Bill Daniels, the founder of the Daniels Fund, “didn’t want to see a student not go to college for financial reasons,” Childears explains. Thus, the Daniels Fund operates a scholarship program in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. “We’ve had good success with our graduation rates, giving the scholars the support they need when entering college,” she adds.

Since all kids are not college-bound, however, and to fill in the gap for young people who prefer to learn a trade, the Daniels Fund supports vocational training through its Youth Development Grant Program. “We want kids to be successful in life—in college or whatever path they choose,” Childears says.

Grove likewise argued for balanced philanthropic support for post-secondary education and training. “We have, collectively, a well-intentioned push toward a one-size-fits-all program of education,” he remarks. “The consequence of that is a failure to increase the effectiveness of our workforce; that determines the effectiveness of our economy, and most importantly, what it does is destroy the ladder to the middle class.”