Report questions the validity of equating career and life success with a college degree

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College degrees are not the
only pathways to prosperity

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

17 September 2011: The last month of summer 2011 in the United States has brought us a New York Times poll showing that New Yorkers remain extremely dissatisfied with their public school system despite years of reform under Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Republican presidential candidates debating the cost of a college education, sparked by conservative Texas Governor Rick Perry’s plan to offer affordable degrees; Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel under fire from both average citizens and teachers’ unions for proposing to raise property taxes to pay for city school improvements; and the US Conference of Mayors passing a resolution urging the federal government to maintain its current level of financial support for adult education and training.

| Background | Career without degree | Politics |

These events are linked by a broad public unease over the cost and performance of many aspects of education in the United States. Such frustration is not new, but it has been growing in recent years, and a new report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Pathways to Prosperity, may explain why. The report concludes that, “the American system for preparing young people to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults is clearly badly broken.” To fully understand the report and this conclusion, it is helpful to review the educational environment in the United States over the past few decades.

In the early-1970s, when educators, scholars, and policy makers began to notice an achievement gap between urban and suburban public school students — particularly the academic under-achievement of urban African-American students - few paid serious attention. The US economy, still prospering from the post-World War II economic boom and enjoying an additional boost from the Vietnam War, led the world in product development, exporting, and, especially, manufacturing. Employers paid wages that allowed the possibility of a relatively rapid advancement, historically, from lower class to middle class to upper class. So, in 1973, when 40 per cent of the American workforce had only a high school degree and another 32 per cent had dropped out of high school with no degree, not many people paid attention to academic disparities. Jobs were plentiful, and the US economy needed workers of all sorts.

Colleges and universities in those days had something of an image problem, as fomenters of culture wars during the Vietnam era. Only after deregulation made local blue-collar jobs exportable and the war in Southeast Asia ended was academia repositioned as the nation’s gateway to a better future. Traditional jobs were being eliminated by automation, robotics, and globalization. The digitalization of just about everything seemed to mean that everyone needed a high tech job. Americans were told that the pace of economic change would only accelerate; downsizing became a household term, and job - indeed, career - jumping an expected exercise for workers. Americans wanted a savior and someone to blame, and academia filled both roles. Higher education became the great equalizer. If you couldn’t land a good job, it was because you didn’t have enough education.

Since it was clear that the poorest public elementary and secondary schools weren’t delivering high student achievement, it was now easier to draw a straight line to the culprit for the economic woes of many displaced workers: it was inadequate education. If people failed to excel academically, they couldn’t go very far economically. The conclusion seemed logical, provoking a national fear of becoming unemployable for lack of an education. Not surprisingly, enrollments in college and adult education programs soared.  

That’s the American education environment today in which academia is considered the best chance to successfully negotiate the new global economy. But there are reasons to question current assumptions, beginning with an evaluation of the results. Today’s employers look for certain skills learned in applied settings beyond books and classrooms. Some skills require post-secondary training, but not all. This is the argument of the new report.

Career without college degree
The Pathways to Prosperity study questions the validity of equating career and life success with a college degree. It points out, for example, that most new jobs being created do not require four years of college and that many US workers are employed outside their fields of study. It criticizes the lack of career pathways for high school age youth who are not academically inclined to move on to traditional college or university studies. This population group is most affected by losses of employment opportunities during the ongoing recession.

The report notes that the nation’s public school initiatives over the past 30 years have failed to deliver a population of learners that are universally-ready for college, and have failed to integrate the majority of young people into mainstream society. As a result, by age 30, only half as many young adults in America today have achieved all of the traditional markers of adulthood, including marriage and having children, compared to 30-year-olds in 1960.

The report presents evidence that the educational system does not work as intended. Only 39 per cent of adult Americans receive a college degree. Just 56 per cent of those who attend a four-year college obtain a Bachelor’s degree in six years or less, and only 30 per cent of those attending a two-year receive an Associate’s degree within three years.

One of the report’s authors, Robert Ferguson, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor about the 60 per cent of the US population that doesn’t have and likely never will have a college degree, said, “If we persist with the illusion that everyone is going to college, then we’re cheating those…who aren’t going. (The) majority of the workforce does not have a college degree, and a majority of the things those people do are going to continue not requiring a college degree.”

What is lacking in American education, according to the report, is a link, a pathway, between the preparation and the career inclination of learners. The report endorses more secondary vocational programs over the current high-stakes academic model. It encourages employers to be more active in education, not by dictating curricular standards, but by offering internships, try-out experiences, and connections with local students. It also encourages more opportunities for learners to master the soft skills needed for the workplace, such as conflict management, diplomacy, and negotiation. The report describes programs in European countries, especially Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden, where such alternative pathways to individual prosperity operate successfully.

The Pathways to Prosperity report begins with a series of endorsements. It’s interesting - but not surprising - to note that none of the endorsements is from an elected official.

All US presidents since John F. Kennedy have made raising college graduation rates an explicit national goal. Mayors in New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Boston, St, Paul, Louisville, and many, many other cities were elected, in part, because they promised to reform their cities’ public schools and made “college readiness” an essential component of their education agendas. The percentage of residents with a Bachelor’s degree or higher has become an accepted marker of competitiveness and success for municipalities, regions, states, and the nation as a whole. Consequently, the drive to get more youth into college is backed by policies, laws, standardized testing regimes, and billions of dollars of public funds.

In other words, while the report questions basic assumptions and offers a compelling counterpoint to current educational practices in the United States, the plain fact is that education is a big, big industry sustained by powerful vested interests.

Turning a big ship around always takes time. Change will not be quick or easy. But few issues are more important to American cities, urban families, and city mayors than redefining higher education.

Reference: Harvard Graduate School of Education, Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenges of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century, February 2011:

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