Last week, we met a young woman whose future lies in higher education. Anysaa El Manfaa is off to a fine liberal arts college after getting a fantastic start at community college. As a community college student and teacher, I saw this kind of story time and time again. It’s cause for honoring and celebrating the colleges that do the lion’s share of launching nontraditional college students into higher education.

But we make a mistake if we believe that liberal arts higher education is for everybody. It’s all about the right fit. Of course, nontraditional students should be welcomed into higher education, but it’s not the only option—for them or for anyone. Our culture leads people to believe that there is something disappointing and inferior about non-academic postsecondary education and about work in the trades. Simply put, American culture stigmatizes work in the trades. Not so in Europe. One wonders if Europeans stigmatize graduating from college with massive debt.

University of South Carolina professor Elizabeth Broadbent confronts this American stigma in this article. Citing an Atlantic piece, she informs readers that about half of European secondary school graduates are educated for fulfilling careers in the trades.

Read these two linked articles and consider the message we send to young people. This is not to suggest that the answer lies in tracking students against their will but rather to encourage an understanding that Americans are blessed to have so many good options.  Training in the trades can be a momentous turning point. And some individuals may want BOTH kinds of learning experience.

The cause of nontraditional students pursuing higher education (including the classic liberal arts) remains as strong for me as it was through my 38-year career at Community College of Philadelphia. But let’s not be snobs about learning. Let’s be smarter than that.


Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions: What Teaching at Community College Taught Me About Learning (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the “Turning Points” weekly blog on City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction. Bachus’s article, “Learning From Turning Points in Our Teaching Lives,” was featured in the May issue of NEA Higher Education Advocate, which reaches over 150,000 college faculty in the U.S.