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"college isn't for everyone"
A high school graduate raises his diploma in celebration as he walks back to his seat during a commencement ceremony Wednesday, June 10, 2015, in Pittston, Pa. Credit: Andrew Krech/The Citizens' Voice via AP

Let’s admit that the “college isn’t for everyone” cliché is really a euphemism for those people aren’t smart enough for college.

At historically black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi’s Grand Chapter Meeting, or Conclave, in New Orleans last month, the phrase again reared its ugly head, when audience members repeatedly embedded it in questions to a panel in black male achievement hosted by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African American Students.

The “college isn’t for everyone” statement isn’t false; it’s just disingenuous. According to the Lumina Foundation, a funder of The Hechinger Report, nearly 39 percent of Americans between 25 and 64 years old hold at least a two-year college degree. However, only 28 percent of blacks, 23 percent of Native Americans and 20 percent of Latinos possess at least a two-year degree. Meanwhile, 44 percent of whites and 59 percent of Asians hold degrees.

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Clearly, not everyone goes to college. But the “not for everyone” verbiage is most frequently used in conversations about improving education for low-income students. Soon thereafter comes the unimaginative bailout for underachieving kids – vocational training.

“Let’s be clear. We should prepare all students as if they are going to college.”

Let’s be clear. We should prepare all students as if they are going to college.

There is a perception that trades require a completely different foundation than a college prep curriculum. The national push for career and technical education (vocational) focuses on “skills he or she can provide to a business” as opposed to those designed to prepare students for college.

This doesn’t mean that all students shouldn’t be prepared with rigorous courses. One study found that “students in career pathways outperformed their peers on the number of credits they earned in STEM and AP classes while also earning higher GPAs in their CTE classes.” The study goes on to recommend rigorous curricula that don’t hinder students’ chances of going to college.

Intimating that we remove academic rigor because certain kids can’t handle it actually downgrades professions as well as the academic sophistication needed to be successful for any career choice in the 21st century. There are high paying jobs that only require a high school diploma. For instance, a college degree won’t predict one’s career performance as a coder.

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Famous college dropouts like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are often used as examples of how high-paying jobs are available for those with only high school or community college training. But Zuckerberg and Jobs aren’t examples of why colleges don’t work; they are examples of why colleges must change. These men shopped for courses they needed, gained networks and acculturated (to a degree).

College and universities must change. Now acting as high-priced finishing schools where the middle-class networks, colleges need to become more affordable, flexible, relevant and inclusive. In particular, they must create programs that are relevant and affordable to the populations they are supposed to serve.

What if the first two years of college were treated like the 13th and 14th grades? Obama’s free community college plan addresses the reality that postsecondary education is requisite for personal and social vitality. The college debt argument within ‘college isn’t for everyone’ debates is vital, but it’s a red herring. If you think college is expensive, try living without a degree.

Related: Colleges need to support low-income students or risk greater economic disparity, but can it be done?

One may assume brothers of a black Greek letter organization, whose membership is predicated on the matriculation, initiation and graduation of undergraduates, think that college is for everyone. Black Greek letter organizations, which represent one of higher education’s most cherished traditions, must trumpet the college is for everyone horn.

I was happy to learn about Kappa Alpha Psi’s Diamond in the Rough campaign at the “Klave.” Diamonds in the rough exposes “young men across the nation to an intense college preparatory and scholarship access program.” The program provides resources for ACT/ SAT test preparation and scholarships for each graduating class of “Kappa Leaguers” and increases access to scholarship opportunities for them nationally. Individual preparation is critical.

College isn’t just for people whom we deem ready. We actually need to educate and transform people whom we’re not ready for. Achievement as a result of selectivity isn’t education – it’s selectivity.

It’s not a bourgie fantasy to expect plumbers and electricians to know the building blocks of language arts, math and science. It’s also not fantasy that fraternal organizations see people who are interested in the trades as future member/collegians. By growing membership and graduation rates, fraternities and sororities offer a bridge from low-income communities to college graduation stages.

College may not be for everyone, but it should be.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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