Education Opinion

A Pathway Worth Pursuing

By Susan Graham — September 24, 2009 4 min read
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“Gov. Haley Barbour says there’s nothing wrong with encouraging some Mississippi high schoolers to aim for skill trade training instead of a university degree.”

This is the opening sentence of a recent Associated Press article that got a lot of play last week and I’m wondering why this story is attracting national attention. I have a hunch some people take umbrage to the governor saying:

“When we tell kids they ought to go to universities who shouldn’t, we set them up for failure.”

There’s reactive sort of bristling that asks, “What, do you think they can’t cut it in college?” Well, the reality is while almost all students say they plan to go to college, only 28 percent of young adults currently hold a college degree and there has been little change in that number since 2000. It is unlikely that there will be a dramatic change in that number anytime soon. “And just who do you think shouldn’t go?” you might be thinking. Well, actually, the answer is pretty simple. Probably any young person who can’t clearly articulate why he or she wants to go to college, what he or she has expectations of accomplishing during a university education, and what they expect to have to show as a return on investment at the end of four years of college.

That may sound a little harsh. Shouldn’t a young person take time to explore options? Isn’t that what college is all about? Maybe---but if asked why they want to go to college, most young people will quickly reply, “Because I want a good job and in order to get a good job I need a good education.” When asked how one defines a good job, I’d bet you my planning period that almost every single student would mention MONEY. And that’s why Gov. Barbour is right.

I looked at the College Board’s college cost calculator and the average cost of a year of a year of education at a four year in state college is $18,326. Assuming an increase of about 5% each year which is not out of line with the current trend, today’s high school freshman can expect to spend just under $100,000 if he or she completes a degree in four years. So yes, when we tell young people they ought to go to college without helping them develop a clear idea of what they are going for, we do set them up for failure and for debt and for personal disillusionment. I can think of no other circumstances where adults encourage someone too young to rent a car to spend $100,000 without a clear understanding of what it is they are purchasing and how that purchase can benefit them.

Here’s why Mississippi’s career pathway program makes sense:

Mississippi’s relatively new high school redesign program lets students choose coursework based on their career interest. So far, the program is in 39 of the state’s 152 school districts, said Mike Mulvihill, associate superintendent for vocational education and work force development at the state Department of Education.”
Mulvihill said every student in the program gets a solid academic base. However, he said some students will take all academic courses during their high school career, while others will take a mix of academics and vocational courses. The pathway starts in the 7th-grade. Along the way, students build portfolios, take aptitude tests, and work with counselors to decide their route, he said.
“Some students will aim for professional careers that would require a college degree. Others may decide to become blue collar workers, such as auto mechanics, which would also require technical literacy,” Mulvihill said.

I like the idea of a pathway. A path has a direction and a purpose, but, in my mind, a path is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. Unfortunately, far too many people seem to think of pure academics as the high road and anything career oriented as the low road. As one Mississippi representative and former teacher put it:

“Vocational training is for the ones that do not want to pursue careers that will require a degree, but they still need their basic education.”

You know--those kids. There it is again: that mindset that implies that when learning is connected to production it is meets a minimal threshold of “basic education.” But the career path framework that Mississippi is attempting to implement goes straight to the top of Bloom’s Hierarchy as curriculum wraps around the analysis and synthesis. Research shows that learning that is linked solving real world problems results in increased motivation, comprehension, and retention. Learning to do simply makes more sense from a theoretical as well as a practical perspective.

But people take umbrage because, asone Mississippi principal points out,

Every parent says “I want my child to go to college.”

That is what they say, but is that really what parents mean? Or do they really mean they want their child to have economic security? Would they still feel as strongly about college if they knew that of the 18 year olds who enroll in college less than half ever complete a degree program? Would research that indicates that students who are enrolled in a blend of CTE and academic courses tend to out perform those in either a straight CTE or a pure academic strand influence their thinking?

College versus Career and Technical Education is a straw man argument and we are doing our young people a disservice when imply that college is the only way to win. No student should be denied the access to an education that prepares them for college. Neither should a student be discouraged from seeking an education that prepares them to enter the workforce with marketable knowledge and skills. We limit their options and we stunt their opportunities when we make it an either/or situation. We owe it to give our young people both academic knowledge and workplace skills. It might be a little more work, and it might be a little more expensive, but it’s a path worth pursuing.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.