In the past 5 years, it seems the trend in K-12 education is this grand idea that every student can go to college, should go to college, and so lets get them prepared for college. Admirable. Local school boards and even states have gotten into the idea, creating new curriculums and creating higher graduation standards for all students. The NY Times recently did a piece on this very idea.
I'm a product of the old system, where students were separated onto different tracks. I was on the college prep track, I took many more courses than what was required to graduate, because I knew that not only was I going to college, I was going to major in engineering. That meant 4 years of math instead of 2, including calculus; 4 years of science; 4 years of math; 3 years of a foreign language; and numerous AP courses. Then there was the vocational track, where you spent half the day taking "regular" courses and then the rest of the day learning a trade, like auto repair, carpentry, cosmotology, etc. And then there were the kids in the middle - didn't quite know about college, did ok in school, but wasn't sure where they were gonna end up. Some went to community college and then to a 4 year university, and some just had kids and became cashiers at the local Meijer (that's a fabulous grocery store in the Midwest for those who aren't familiar).
I wonder how different my high school experience would have been if everyone in my class had been forced to take courses that they weren't prepared for or weren't interested in. The beauty of the college prep track at my school was that it was dominated by students who actively wanted to learn, who were genuinely interested in the subjects, and who had a thirst for knowledge. Of course, we are still high school students, but the level of nonsense behavior and acting out was practically non-existant, because those troublemakers were in the "normal" classes. In an environment where every student is forced onto a college prep track, those who are disinterested could act out, causing disruptions for the students who are trying to prepare themselves for college.
Then of course, there's the obstacle of getting into college. Preparing everyone for college means that they'll have a college to go to....and how will this effect those colleges? Can they really handle the influx of students, especially given the rising cost of education and the lowering amount of support that state schools are receiving. How will this effect low income students, who traditionally have relied on scholarships and grants? A bigger pool of eligible students + stagnant amount of available money = less money for each student, so how will they make up the difference? But that's something to worry about once they get in, cause already students are finding it hard to get into college, simply because the number of students vying for a small number of spaces has gone up so fast, so quickly.
So let's say this plan works....everyone makes it through high school, everyone goes off to college and graduates. Once they walk across the stage diploma in hand and goes to look for a job, what is out there for them? Is there really a huge market for college educated folks? And what happens to those jobs that don't require a college degree, do they somehow go away? Who's gonna get my fries at McDonalds, or cut my grass, or even snake my drain? There are plenty of technically skilled positions that there isn't a college degree for, unless colleges have started programs in carpentry and plumbing that I didn't know about. I'm sure someone will say "High school kids can handle the retail/service jobs" and I'm sure they can - when they aren't in school. If I want a Big Mac at 1 PM when all the kids are supposed to be in school, am I out of luck?
Overall, in the rush to "help" students and "fix" the American public education system, I think educators, school districts and states have done students a disservice by claiming that EVERY student SHOULD go to college. It assumes that students are only interested in going to college (when their interests may lie elsewhere), it assumes that only college educated folks can live a middle class lifestyle (which isn't true either), and it assumes that both the American college system and the American workforce can support an entire generation of solely college educated individuals, when we know our society works by having folks on a variety of educational levels all working together.