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College Isn’t for Whom?

by Jeanne Allen
Forbes
March 28, 2019

“Not everyone should go to college,” screamed a recent editorial, penned, ironically, by a Ph.D. He joins the chorus of successful, highly educated people who insist that others should not aspire to similar paths. Here’s why they are wrong.

First, creating different pathways for students requires that some person or institution has the qualifications to decide who gets directed to what track and when. With a public education system that is already failing to educate more than three quarters of students in kindergarten through 12th grade, what makes us think they’ll figure out how to productively link kids with their most promising pathway?

Second, opportunities for life after high school go far beyond a simple either/or of career and technical ed versus college. There are literally thousands of new innovative pathways in higher ed that restore its relevance. They are not limited to two- or four-year college but represent a number of new educational venues – on-ground, online, traditional, accelerated and more.

Third, every student needs and every American should want students to master history, civics, geography, literacy and numeracy, no matter where one chooses to go. These prerequisites for life guide family and work and improve communication skills, participation in our democracy and more. Traditional career technical education programs minimize or omit such educational requirements – because supposedly “college isn’t for everyone.”

There’s a new narrative that “college isn’t for everyone, There’s a new narrative that “college isn’t for everyone,” but the paradigm of higher education has fundamentally changed through innovation and the establishment of new pathways. (PIXABAY)

Perhaps the most famous advocate of career “alternatives” is unaware of the conditions of traditional vocational tracking. Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” – himself a college grad – has encouraged parents and other adults to “stop telling kids to blindly follow their passion (i.e., the same higher ed aspirations that have him standing on stages today) and show them the undeniable truth of the opportunities that exist.”

Why would so many who themselves benefited from higher education work to lead anyone – whose circumstances they know not – away from the same opportunities they have enjoyed?

Skeptics are right to point out the shortcomings of U.S. higher education. Only 60% of Americans at four-year colleges graduate within six years of starting, and only 14% of students of low socioeconomic status complete college within eight years of graduating high school. Among those who do make it, most recent graduates say that their degrees weren’t worth it – only 38% thought the cost was justified. And half of hiring managers say that college graduates are not prepared to enter the workforce.

Of course, the problem begins much earlier. Most students entering college are not prepared for those challenges, with 40% of students at four-year college and 66% of students at community college needing remedial education. The cost of high schools graduating functional illiterates is an estimated $1.3 billion annually. So is college really the problem? High school should produce people who are literate, whether they become plumbers, professors, managers or “just” parents.

I’m appalled at the lack of rigor, sheer bureaucracy and overspending in higher ed that makes people want to walk away from it altogether. Some students falter for years; others find meaningful pathways. But most students who finish a U.S. higher education have trained minds that can handle a variety of positions and occupations. While that may not materialize for every student, it’s simply folly to argue we should discourage higher ed aspirations for millions because there are unfilled jobs in service fields. Meanwhile, China knows that higher ed attainment is directly correlated to successful economies. That’s why they export their students here and import our universities’ practices.

The question should be: how do we fill critical jobs? The solution is not just sending more kids to shop class. We need a new approach to postsecondary education, one that allows students to gain relevant training of both the mind and occupationally, ensuring we provide a path to competency in many areas that are transferable to a variety of work and educational situations that allow cumulative gains, not just one-and-done skills training.

Imagine a high school junior who expresses an interest in becoming a nurse. Senior year (or a 13th year) could include courses preparing that student as a licensed practical nurse tuition-free. She could finish her license months later and immediately get a job making $20 per hour. As an employee, that student could receive a $5,250 tuition assistance benefit from her employer to continue her education, which might also include exposure to the humanities so that if she chose, she’d already be on course for an associate or bachelor’s degree (or a new kind of degree yet to be defined) and thus able to become a registered nurse. Without much college debt, this student could step out of higher education with a job or continue into the upper middle class as an advanced practice nurse making well into the six figures and able to ensure they can read, write and participate in our great country. That’s the kind of higher education that creates prosperous careers – and productive citizens.

Another way to advance students into careers is the creation of recognized degree programs for non-completers with lots of coursework under their belt who are underemployed and not entirely convinced that the 7 million available skilled jobs are the right path for them to pursue. Most higher education institutions will not accept coursework that they themselves did not create, validate or include in their accredited course of study. We need to incentivize existing higher education institutions to accept for credit any coursework a student has completed that comes from a heretofore accredited institution or a technical or trade school that delivers qualified workers to the field. We should encourage, permit and even require comparable institutions to provide a leg up to those who have not yet but could become credentialed or degreed so that they can access a degree or training program of their choice.

If we want people to compete in the new economy, to code-shift when business changes, to be flexible workers who can handle the anxieties of everyday life, to be thoughtful, engaged and knowledgeable citizens who know the difference between legislation and executive orders and different levels of government, and to manage their nation, then we need to help them not just earn, but learn. Our society loses the ability to function when its citizens do not know history, cannot and are not trained to read complicated texts and cannot weigh decisions for themselves, their world. That doesn’t mean we need to accept conventional education the way it’s structured today. (And please stop comparing us to Germany, which demands just the opposite from its citizens!)

Any employer wants employees who can problem-solve and who knows how to learn. There are many paths to those attributes, but college – or some modern evolution of it — is the most likely equalizer for these soft skills. But no matter one’s path, we need to expect and support institutions that ensure students become both good workers and good citizens.

Not every kind of college is for everyone. But education is.

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