Over the past decade or more, policy makers and educators have focused intensely on college readiness programs at the high school level. A well-educated student is one who has mastered the skills necessary to be successful at the college level, the argument goes. I agree that we must increase rigor at all levels, but shouldn’t the rigor be accompanied by corresponding relevance for the student? Not all students will be successful at the college level, nor should they be. Common sense tells us that many people do not have the academic ability, motivation, or learning style that is necessary to succeed at the four-year college level.
A growing chorus of education experts are calling for schools to better prepare students for futures that might not include four-year degrees. A recent Harvard University report summarized some of the concerns that practicing educators have been expressing regarding the notion of pushing students into a four-year college path. The “Pathways to Prosperity” study, released in February, argued that job-market and college-completion realities demand that schools pay more attention to the large group of students who graduate from high school but might not earn four-year college degrees.
Two thirds of the jobs created in the United States by 2018 will require some postsecondary education, but of those, nearly half will go to people with occupational certificates or associate degrees. In addition, many of those jobs have very good wages: one-quarter of them pay more than the average job requiring a bachelor’s degree. The study also questioned whether the focus on college preparation is justified, noting that only 56 percent of students who enroll in four-year colleges earn a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s. What happens to the other half? And what about the huge debt they have incurred without receiving a degree?
Fortunately, many high schools, vocational institutions, and community colleges are forging partnerships that cross traditional boundaries to expose students to career options. Partnerships of this type focus on training for higher-skilled jobs that will continue to be in demand, especially in the technical and medical fields. A recent article outlined some of these successful programs: “College for All Campaign Getting a Second Look.”
I see some key areas for educators:
- Educate parents and students about career opportunities outside of the typical four-year college track.
- Remove the elitist view that some in education have. Trade school isn’t “just” trade school. Our world functions because of very skilled people who can manufacture and repair our cars, homes, roads, …. You get the idea. Additionally, our world functions because of trained service people who might have “only” a high school degree.
- Partner with those in vocational/career education and industry. They are not “dumping grounds” for anyone today. Learn those skills that students are required to have to be successful in their industry. It might not be a bad idea to spend a half-day professional development opportunity by loading high school teachers on a bus and letting them tour a career education facility!
- Provide more curricular options for students in grades 9-12. Make the learning more relevant for those who may not be interested in a four-year college track. As an example, (I’m going to step on the toes of my English teacher friends now) does the skilled auto mechanic really need to be able to analyze The Scarlett Letter? He or she needs higher-level reading and writing skills, but maybe we should rethink what form those skills take.