Does It Make Sense to Force High School Students to Apply to College?



The idea that college after high school should be the norm is now so entrenched that one state (New Mexico) is considering a bill that would force high school juniors to apply to college.

As we read in this Albuquerque Journal story, a bill with bipartisan support has been approved by a committee of the state House of Representatives on February 1. It still has a way to go before becoming law, but the fact that such a bill would even be drafted is indicative of our mania for pushing high education.

House Bill 23 is co-sponsored by Republican Nate Gentry, the House minority leader and Democratic senator Daniel Ivey-Soto. Their bill provides that all high school juniors in the state would have to apply to at least one college unless they can show to officials that they have made other plans for their lives after graduation: military service, a vocational work program, an apprenticeship, or internship. Students’ parents and their high school guidance counselors would have to give their approval to such alternative plans.

The lawmakers are worried about the fact that fewer students in New Mexico are going to college. This USA Today piece about the bill informs us that “The measure was drafted with the aim of reversing declines in college enrollment across the state, which fell nearly 14 percent from 155,065 enrolled students in 2010 to 133,830 in 2016.”

But so what if college enrollments have been declining? Most of our political and educational leaders assume that the more years of formal education an individual has, the better off he will be, earning more money (and coincidentally paying more taxes), enjoying better health, having a more stable life, and so forth. They conclude that declining college enrollment must mean that more young people are making a serious mistake – a mistake that the government should help to prevent with a law like House Bill 23.

If it were illegal for students to leave high school without concrete, state and family approved plans, then fewer would make the “mistake” of not going to college. That’s evidently the thinking behind House Bill 23.

These two state politicians obviously aren’t considering the possibility that too many students were going to college in the past and that the decline reflects better knowledge about the balance of costs and benefits of college seeping into the minds of New Mexicans.  Writing on Forbes, Preston Cooper points out that about a third of recent college graduates are underemployed. Choosing not to go to college makes perfect sense if you want to avoid spending years of time and lots of money in college only to end up working in a job you could do without that “investment.”

The way this bill would probably impact students is that a few marginal students – ones who are not sure if college is right for them – will wind up going that route simply because it gets the government off their backs. Nothing in the bill says that students who apply must actually attend college, but once they have applied, the school or schools will start seducing them with their claims about the success that will be their if they enroll.

It is hard enough for young people to figure out which way to go after high school without the state government forcing them to either apply to college or show that they have some other plan in mind. Won’t any politicians in New Mexico stand up for the freedom of young people to be left alone by the government rather than forced to make a big decision at 17?

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