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In New Orleans schools there are a lot of teachers, principals and guidance counselors who encourage students to go to college so much and so vigorously that it seems as though they are forcing the idea of college on them. I have advisors who encourage me to attend a four-year university at both my high school, Lake Area New Tech, and at Bard Early College, a college preparation program I attend part time. Their encouragement is understandable since both my high school and Bard’s program were designed to prepare me for a four-year college. But I wish the advisors took seriously some of my other dreams.

Thea Tucker

For instance, one day I tried talking to one of the advisors about moving to California to pursue modeling and he told me that I should just put that dream on hold and go to college. If I can only talk with my college advisor about college —or else risk being seen as lacking in ambition —then I would prefer a life coach or someone else who accepts me and accepts alternative definitions of ambition and success. It’s unfair to force the same notion of success on all children; everyone is different and college is not always the right or best choice.

Not only does my high school tell us that we all should go to college, they force seniors to apply to college and tell us that we cannot graduate unless we have been accepted some place (although they would have no legal right to withhold a diploma). I do not even know what I want to major in if I go to college: My high school has taken us on many field trips to colleges, but we have never visited workplaces that would give us a sense of potential jobs and career paths.

Moreover, there are not enough vocational classes or career courses available for students in New Orleans. Most schools have math, English, science, social studies, art and physical education classes. Yet I have rarely seen home economics, mechanics, wood shop or any other classes that could provide different options to students with diverse skills.

”If we follow traditions embraced by white people because we think it is the only way to be successful or important in the world, that can lead to…ongoing stress to be someone we are not.”

As much as they differed in their outlooks on education, both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois understood that not all black people need to follow the same path. Their thoughts are still important today in New Orleans, where most of the public school children are African-American. “Du Bois stressed the importance of a college-educated talented tenth [“talented tenth”referred to the most elite African Americans of his day], while Washington emphasized vocational training for the black masses,”wrote historian Raymond Wolters. Both Washington and Du Bois were correct. Not everyone should go to college, but not everyone should go to vocational schools. The two men emphasized the importance of personal responsibility and self-improvement. But an individual has to know her own strengths and find her own path in order to take charge of her own destiny. This is a particularly important lesson for African-Americans because we come from a different culture and background than white Americans. If we follow traditions embraced by white people because we think it is the only way to be successful or important in the world, that can lead not only to financial debt (in the case of college), but ongoing stress to be someone we are not.

Writing in 1978, Diane Ravitch noted that many historians viewed schools as“instruments of coercive assimilation, designed to strip minority children of their culture and to mold them to serve the needs of capitalism.”While Ravitch disagreed with the idea that schools were instruments of “assimilation” at that time, I personally agree with that argument. Many schools, for instance, tell children to go to college and try to teach children rules that will make them disciplined enough to work at corporations that support the country’s capitalistic economy.

Student Voices:
New Orleans perspectives

This essay is part of a collaboration between The Hechinger Report and high school students at Bard’s Early College in New Orleans. The teenagers wrote opinion pieces on whether all students should be encouraged to attend college, the value of alternative teacher preparation programs such as Teach For America, the importance of desegregation, or the best approach to school discipline.

Schools should not prioritize college above other goals such as vocational training. The guidance counselor in every school should speak to all students and understand what each student wants to do in their life. Many New Orleans students graduate from high school unsatisfied with their options because the only routes are college or minimum wage jobs. Guidance counselors need to tell students other routes exist, and high schools need to help prepare them by offering a broader range of courses. They also need to employ enough counselors so that they can take the time to get to know students as individuals.

The false teaching that college brings automatic success causes a lot of youth to go to college with unrealistic ideas of getting a job in the field they majored in and making a lot of money. In reality, many people graduate with debt (an average of more than $35,000 for the class of 2013) and have to get jobs unrelated to their majors because the economy is so bad. There is not a guarantee that students will get a job if they attend vocational schools either. But we must not overemphasize one route: There are many different things that a person can do with their life and be happy.

Thea Tucker, 17, is a senior at Lake Area New Tech Early College High School.

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  1. I agree and disagree with your statement that college education and vocational education is not for everybody, however, you are missing the big picture about today’s reality. Our economy has changed during the past 30 years from an agricultural based economy to a knowledge based economy. The jobs that people used to take did not require a college education or post-secondary training. For example, you could select a manufacturing career with only a high school diploma because at that time skills were not advanced yet. Fast forward to 20 to 30 years, what happened to all the manufacturing jobs? They ended up being outsourced to cheap foreign countries and being replaced by technology to cut labor costs. In other words, even if people want to go into manufacturing, they will need advanced post-secondary training to meet the employers’ expectations. I do believe that students should decide for themselves, however, they should not have to struggle financially to choose between obtaining a college education and post-secondary training for the 21st century economy. You said that attending college or vocational education does not guarantee people a job. I would have to disagree with you because obviously you are thinking long-term. We have to change our mentality and have employers and colleges/post-secondary training institutions to collaborate earlier so that we can find talent. If I were you, I would study how Finland’s education system gives students different options to choose from, for example, choosing between college education and vocational training, but both of them are paid for by the government. No one should work at McDonalds or other retailers for less pay.

  2. Thea, I agree with many of your thoughtful, balanced, and well-cited assertions. This is an incredibly well written piece, which is precisely why you, specifically, should absolutely go to college. You can model on the side, you can do what ever you want afterwards, but you’ve got a good mind, child and Du Bois would have told you the same.

  3. As a Professional School Counselor (we are NOT guidance counselors), I have to say that what Thea experiences is by far the exception not the rule. I cannot think any schools that I know of who require applications and acceptances, much less threaten to withhold graduation for not completing them. I would question the ethics and policies of any school that does that and their PSC who oversees the applications. Private schools (not sure if the high school is private or possibly a charter) have much more freedom to impose these things but I don’t see how it helps students.

    Every single PSC I know and have interacted with (and that number is significant) focus on the best fit for each student. We do value education and pursuing higher levels of achievement, but also value the student’s goals, ambitions, and dreams. We want to provide as much information to all students so they can make a well informed decision regarding their future – but ultimately – the decision is their own to make.

    I hope that those reading this keep in mind the unfortunate fact that many times the only press that Professional School Counselors get is of the bad type. We are rarely celebrated for the great success we help facilitate with students at all levels (career/vocational to four year schools) in addition to supporting students socially/emotionally and saving lives each year. From all the PSC’s out there – we love your students, want the best for them, and promise to help them make post-secondary goals in a well informed, student driven manner. Go class of 2014!

  4. Thank you for your comments, JR! As a fellow PSC I couldn’t have said it better myself.
    Thea: I wish you much success in your future endeavors. Your situation is unfortunate, but not all counselors are like the ones you encountered. Professional School Counselors DO know that college isn’t the right fit for every student. “Guidance Counselors” may not 🙂
    Again, good luck! I believe you will be successful at whatever you choose.

  5. High school graduates trained in trades earn more than university grads for many years, perhaps for most of their productive lives when debt repayment is deducted. *I*, as a university professor, recommend that you follow your dreams. You’ll be happy to put the long hours into something you love and not just any old J.O.B. you might be able to find. My ambitions took me overseas. For you there are similar options. For a western model in many countries the competition is as tough and the rewards are relatively very good (look up PPP to understand).

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