The Educational Sky is Falling (Unless It’s Not)

Finally some good news about education. According to the Pew Research Center:

“Record shares of young adults are completing high school, going to college and finishing college, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of newly available census data. In 2012, for the first time ever, one-third of the nation’s 25- to 29-year olds have completed at least a bachelor’s degree. These across-the-board increases have occurred despite dramatic immigration-driven changes in the racial and ethnic composition of college-age young adults, a trend that had led some experts to expect a decline in educational attainment.”

You might have missed this story in yesterday’s paper. And probably today’s paper. I doubt you will read about it again any time soon. Certainly, I’m not arguing there is a conspiracy against admitting that our k-12 and universities are doing great things, but . . . Well. Okay. Maybe I am, at the least, feeling a little beat up after the last few years’ attacks on higher ed. I’m sure the report was just lost in the election day news cycle. (Which, of course, begs the simple question–why release it the day before the election if you want people to pay attention?)

If you go read the report, you will note, naturally, that the authors credit “some” of the higher completion rates to the economic recession. Such a recession, in the logic of the report, increased completion because there were fewer jobs for the high school dropout. Right. Because that kid who in 2005 would have dropped out suddenly gained a frontal-lobe and realized his long-term interests were better served by staying in high school. Teens have long been noted for their ability to forgo instant gratification for long-term gain.

For our colleges facing an influx of across the board demographic changes, the argument must be that fewer job possibilities increase a student’s desire not to leave college. It’s possible, based on this logic, that the increased minority populations were able to remain in college (paying ever higher tuition that the “experts” tell us is making an education unattainable) because of financial aid. In other words–a bad economy removes all other opportunities leaving students no choice but to remain in school. Except we know that, traditionally, minority students, in particular Hispanic students, eschew financial aid. We also know that for underprivileged students a poor economy often increases family responsibilities, leading them to work more (to support the family) and decreasing their likelihood of completion.

I have a different suggestion for why more students are completing k-12 and college despite what we might consider increasingly difficult conditions and less than ideal learning environments.

Click to view


Like the folks in Arizona who worked their tails off inspiring a generation of students despite political pressure and threats.

Or my neighbor across the street who leaves her house at 7:00 in the morning and gets home around 4:30.

Or my colleague’s wife who works almost every weekend trying to teach science to 5th graders in an economically disadvantaged school.

Or maybe a coach who helped some kid who never dreamed of going to college get recruited and signed.

Or my colleagues across my college campus who help 1st generation students know they can succeed.

Or my colleagues who work every Saturday or Sunday morning grading papers, writing detailed comments that help students perform at a higher level.

Or my friends in financial aid, student life, IT, and housing who work weekends finding ways for our students to persist to their degree.

Crazy as it sounds maybe we can all take a week off from beating up teachers unions and college faculty. Maybe, instead of telling us over and over again that traditional schools aren’t working, or that teachers unions are full of fat cats destroying America (by the way–type Teachers Unions Destroy Education into your browser–man there are some bitter people out there), we can bask in the glow of our success.

Teachers and students are working hard. Hard work is paying off. It’s not a radical concept. It might not be sexy and it might not sell newspapers, but would it hurt to take a breath and pat an educator on the back this week?

In the face of radically different demographics and changing student populations, our schools are succeeding. In an era where government support for education is at an all time low or incredibly uneven, yet required accountability is at an all time high, our teachers at the k-12 level and at the university level are getting the job done.

Nah. There’s got to be some other reason.

About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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