Learning That Dare Not Speak Its Name

In 2009 President Obama announced that by 2020 the United States should lead the world with the highest percentage of college graduates. His ambitious statement fueled the idea—already popular—that “everyone” ought to go to college.

Critics rightly challenged Obama’s proposal for many reasons, from its high cost to the fact that it will force unprepared students into college work.

But to be fair to the president, his message was mixed with a more modest one. He urged all students to obtain at least some postsecondary education. “So tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training,” he said on Feb. 24, 2009. “This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.”

That goal is more flexible and thus more realistic. It recognizes alternative routes to a successful life.

One organization trying to help students find those alternatives is the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which recently issued a report called “Pathways to Prosperity.” The authors pay obeisance to Obama’s aspirations to boost the number of college graduates (“something we should all be rooting for”), but they also state bluntly that the pressure to send everybody to college, along with the disparagement of vocational education, are making life difficult for many young people.

Unfortunately, the paper hit the higher education community with a dull thud. Neither the Chronicle of Higher Education nor Inside Higher Ed mentioned the report, and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) panned it. (The National Association of Scholars and Phi Beta Cons did take note.) Yet the report offers hope for helping young people achieve their goals without forcing them into the straitjacket of traditional college.

The Pathways to Prosperity project is more than a single paper; it includes experimental efforts in the Silicon Valley, Illinois, and Boston to revitalize career and technical education (known as CTE). Started in 2008, it was at first called The “Forgotten Half” Project, a term stemming from a 1988 study about the 20 million young people who didn’t go to college.  Sadly, that “half” has grown to two-thirds of all young people—including not only those who don’t go to college but those who start college and drop out (sometimes with high debt loads) and those who never even get through high school.

Like Obama (and like the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, one of many sources cited) the authors take the position that some postsecondary education is warranted for nearly everyone. But because they include such a broad range of choices, from occupational certificates to internships and even job shadowing, they offer a fresh way of thinking about young people and their careers.

“’College for all’ may be the mantra, but the hard reality is that fewer than one in three young people achieve the dream,” write William C. Symonds, Robert B. Schwartz, and Ronald Ferguson, the authors. “Behaving as though four-year college is the only acceptable route to success works well for affluent students…. But it clearly does not work well for many, especially young men.” (Women earn 57 percent of all degrees.)

This is particularly sad because there are opportunities for good jobs without bachelor’s degrees. They note that, according to the Georgetown Center, 27 percent of people with “post-secondary licenses or certificates” earn more than those with bachelor’s degrees. Furthermore, between now and 2018, only 33 percent of all jobs will require a bachelor’s degree.

The Harvard report even suggests that the “college for all” mantra has worsened prospects for the forgotten half, citing such evidence as:

  • Recent requirements that high school students take college-prep courses have led more students to quit without even getting a high school diploma, reports James Stone of the National Research Center for Career & Technical Education.
  • Korea (one of the countries outpacing the United States in college attendance) has become disenchanted with its policies. The president of Korea said in March 2010 that “reckless entrance into college . . . exacerbates youth unemployment.”

So what’s to be done? A section of the report is devoted to apprenticeships and vocational programs in Europe that develop “occupationally relevant skills and credentials” for young people. The authors do not recommend simply importing the policies of other countries. Germany’s apprenticeship programs go back generations and are closely integrated into the country’s culture. The authors reject the idea of differentiating students at an early age into college-prep and vocational tracks.

What the authors advocate is “an American strategy” for CTE. They want educators, working with employers, to fashion a broader range of pathways for young people, especially those unlikely to get four-year degrees. At the core is “workplace learning”—enabling high school and community college students to try out jobs and building clearer connections between programs of study and future careers. Professional schools (medicine, law, business) routinely mix experience (“clinical practice”) with in-school studying. Why shouldn’t this work for high school and community college students?

Interestingly, we already have an “American strategy” of multiple pathways to careers. As Washington Post writer Robert J. Samuelson wrote in 2006, a postsecondary “American learning system” already exists, one that partly makes up for the fact that the nation’s K-12 schools often fail the forgotten half. Its resources include community colleges, for-profit schools, adult extension courses, job training, online courses, and even self-help books. It may be messy and uncoordinated, but it is full of “second chances” and opportunities for young people to figure what they really want to do.

But this “learning system” has been drowned out and disparaged as the “college for all” proponents have seized the microphone. The prejudice against CTE keeps revenues flowing to traditional colleges and universities, and it can be found elsewhere, too. “It isn’t uncommon to hear prominent educational leaders—including superintendents of districts serving largely low-income minority populations—dismiss CTE,” write the authors.

The Sirenic call of college for all is powerful. Its false allure is the problem “Pathways to Prosperity” is trying to address. “Millions of young adults now arrive at their mid-20s without a college degree and/or a route to a viable job,” the authors observe. Surely it’s time to change that.