The Folly of Achievement Mania

The Folly of Achievement Mania

Jim RosenbaumAmerican society is obsessed with high SAT scores and the bachelor’s degree, Northwestern University professor James Rosenbaum wrote in an op-ed published in the Hechinger Report.

Although academic skills and degrees are worthwhile goals, the narrow, one-dimensional focus “ignores many good options and creates unnecessary discouragement for students who feel they cannot meet college test-score requirements,” wrote Rosenbaum, a professor of sociology, education, and social policy at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy.

Rosenbaum, who co-authored the new book Bridging the Gaps: College Pathways to Career Success with Caitlin E. Ahearn and Janet E. Rosenbaum, argues that the highest scores aren’t necessary for college access. “We were amazed to discover that 90 percent of high school graduates now attend college within eight years of graduation,” wrote Rosenbaum, a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research.

We have come close to attaining ‘college for all,’ yet only 13 percent of colleges are “very selective,” Rosenbaum wrote.  “Most graduating seniors attend the other 87 percent” of colleges — trade schools, public and private two-year and four-year colleges, large and small colleges, for-profit colleges, and colleges with massive open online courses (MOOCs) and blended learning.

“These other colleges offer practical occupational programs, in which many students discover abilities, interests, and motivation they didn’t know they had,” Rosenbaum wrote.

Other highlights from Rosenbaum’s piece:

  • More students get associate degrees and occupational certificates than a bachelor’s degree.
  • About 25 percent of individuals with one-year occupational certificates earn more than most bachelor’s holders.
  • Some young adults choose lower-paying jobs in order to get better autonomy, training, or career relevance. High-paying jobs are sometimes dangerous, disagreeable, or dead-end.
  • In contrast to the SAT rat race, associate degree and occupational certificate holders can get good jobs that are vital to society — airplane mechanics, auto repair mechanics, computer technicians, HVAC services, manufacturing workers, medical aides, and elevator-repair workers. About half of all jobs in the U.S. are mid-skill jobs are like these.

“Society sometimes seems blinded by an achievement mania, which distracts attention from what really matters for most people,” Rosenbaum wrote. “In fact, high school seniors want jobs that are satisfying, help others, contribute to society, and provide sufficient earnings to support a family. Youth don’t need high SAT scores to attain these goals.”

Read the full op-ed "Stop Driving Kids Crazy: A four-year college degree isn't the only answer."


By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 10/19/17