Author Q&A: Looking Beyond 'College For All'

—Robert B. Schwartz
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Robert B. Schwartz raised many eyebrows with a 2011 report that questioned the wisdom of the prevailing “college for all” ethic. The study made a plea for better options for students who didn’t want to pursue bachelor’s degrees, a notable shift in viewpoint for the Harvard education professor who had long supported the idea of making four-year degrees a goal for all students. In a joint project of Harvard and Jobs for the Future, Schwartz now co-leads the Pathways to Prosperity Network, a group of states working on career-focused options for young people. He details the first five years of that work in a new book, Learning For Careers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

It’s been seven years since your report with Ron Ferguson, “Pathways to Prosperity,” questioned the “four-year-degree for everyone” movement. Why do you think this idea is getting so much attention right now?

First, there’s this continuing anxiety about the cost of four-year colleges and universities. And the economic returns to a four-year degree are no longer guaranteed.

It’s true that in the aggregate, the more education you have, the better off you are, but in this economy, the skills you have actually matter more than the number of years of education you have.

We’re seeing significant overlap in the earnings of people with two-year degrees—particularly two-year technical degrees that are aligned with the needs of the regional labor market—and four-year-degree holders.

A second piece is that U.S. policymakers are noticing that other countries seem to get better results with well-structured programs that don’t rely on universities but on partnerships between employers and educators. I’m thinking of countries like Germany, Switzerland, Austria.

The third thing has been the revival of interest in apprenticeship.

The skills gap tends to be mentioned most often as the reason that our high schools should feel a sense of urgency in preparing students for the workforce. How big a role does the skills gap play in your thinking about why we need to do better with career preparation?

The skills gap is certainly an important driver here. But I begin with what’s best for young people. What the skills-gap argument suggests is that we need a better way to align our education system with the needs of a growing and dynamic economy.


See Also: As the future of work changes, how are schools adapting? Check out the latest news coverage on the way schools are preparing students for tomorrow’s workforce: Schools and the Future Workforce


But first and foremost for me is how do we get a much larger fraction of our young people to have the academic skills and work experience that can help them develop professional skills, and some technical skills, so they emerge by the age of 20 or 21 with some kind of a credential that has value in the labor market and they can get themselves launched?

We think a first postsecondary credential is critical. It’s pretty clear a high school education is no longer enough. Your question was framed as if the skills gap is something high schools need to focus on, which is not the way we see the world.

Shifting more emphasis from the bachelor’s degree to the associate degree and industry credentials seems to imply some pretty big changes in how we build pathways in K-12. Are we up to that challenge?

I think we’re testing that right now. I think it’s a healthy development, this idea of “some postsecondary,” not just the gold standard of the four-year degree. It’s going to take a while before it fully penetrates into high schools.

Part of our challenge is to inject, much earlier and in a more consistent fashion, a much stronger focus on the world of work and careers, and the various education and training paths than can lead young people to a career that matches their own interests.

That’s the larger problem, as I see it, of getting high schools to be more focused on helping young people think more broadly about postsecondary education and training, not narrowly focused on one pathway.

What kinds of changes have to happen in schools to help this take hold?

I don’t think this is a problem that schools by themselves can solve. If we’re serious about career readiness, it’s going to take a different set of relationships among schools and employers and community-based organizations to really provide kids the kinds of experiences they need to have in order to be in a position to make informed choices among different pathways.

What do you mean by career readiness?

College readiness usually means that when kids graduate from high school they have the academic skills to take the next educational step.

With career readiness, it’s not parallel. When kids leave high school, they’re not really ready to start a career. What we want is for them to have had enough exposure to the world of work, including some significant opportunities for work-based learning, to be able to make an informed choice about what their next step is.

That’s a big challenge. I don’t think schools are equipped to do that on their own. I certainly don’t think this is a burden that can be put on school counselors by themselves. We need to figure out a systematic way, beginning as early as the middle grades, to think about what it takes year by year to give kids exposure to the world of work and careers.

In your new book, you mention that less education can actually be worth more in some fields of study. That could feel pretty counterintuitive to a lot of people. It might seem odd to advise students to get less college education. What do you mean that less can be more? Why would we advise students, in some cases, to get less education?

I would never overtly say to somebody, “You’re better off getting less than more.” What I would say is let’s focus on getting you a first postsecondary credential so you can get started, and then you can decide. Is this enough for me, or do I want to go on and get more?

[There] … are studies that show the economic returns [of various postsecondary programs] one year out, five years out, and 10 years out. In some states, in some economic regions, people with two-year technical degrees are outearning or keeping pace with the average four-year-degree holder.

It’s those kinds of data, region by region, occupation by occupation, that if we could make available to young people and their parents, we could help them see why they might choose to focus first on a two-year degree or a first postsecondary certificate, depending on what field it’s in, and what the economic returns are.

The other piece of this is the continuing high four-year college and university dropout rates. What you see is a lot of people starting out and relatively few finishing. We need to do a better job of being clear about the consequences of starting and not finishing. Particularly if you are from a low-income family or a person of color, some college doesn’t get you much more advantage in the labor market than a high school diploma and may actually get you some debt.

If we’re going to try so hard to expose students to careers, wouldn’t you say it’s pretty important that schools know what’s going on in the labor market and how to properly advise students?

That’s right. I’m starting to see this in some of the places we’re working. New York City has a very nice set of brochures organized by industry sector, written for young people, that I think give them a pretty good way of starting to think about this. If you’re this kind of kid with these kinds of interests, you might be interested in this sector. Here are the kinds of jobs and occupations open to you with a one-year certificate, or two-year degree, or four-year degree or more, and here are the pay ranges.

This is relatively new stuff. This is not something schools are typically set up to do. But as you were pointing out, it’s part of this wave that’s beginning to wash over schools around what their responsibilities are vis- à -vis exposing kids to a broader range of postsecondary options. I think that’s leading them to look at some of the labor-market data as well.

How can schools do that without counselors, or some cadre of adults, who know those labor-market trends and can translate them for students?

That’s a great question. It’s not clear to me. What is clear to me is that given the current ratios and the responsibilities counselors carry, it’s simply not a realistic expectation for them.

So where does this cadre of adults come from? It’s a really important question. Boston has something called the Boston Private Industry Council that fills some of that role. It has a cadre of career specialists that work in every Boston high school. They are the ones who are talking to kids, connecting them with workplace opportunities. In Switzerland, the government funds community-based information centers that do this work.

We’re going to have to figure out a way to get this kind of information into the schools, through community-based organizations or employer associations. Schools can’t do this alone.

New York City, and Boston, and other cities have a web of organizations that are solely focused on college access. They supplement the work counselors do by providing detailed information on financial aid, walking kids through the FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] system, etc. Some of these organizations are beginning to broaden out their scope from college access to career. Some of those organizations can acquire the kind of competence to advise kids in this way.

But I don’t have a short-term, easy answer to this problem.

Do you worry about resegregation? As soon as people say, “Maybe not all kids need to go to college,” I wonder if that bachelor’s degree bar will be lowered for the same groups of kids who got tracked in the old vocational-ed. system—low-income and minority kids and those from households without a history of college-going.

We still have way, way too much segregation in the schools. It’s not as if we’ve arrived at some nirvana of integration and now will go backwards. But high-end CTE schools siphoning off high-end kids, that’s an interesting phenomenon and a point of real tension in this movement.

As I travel around in my work, what I see is that the high-quality, really modern CTE programs are serving disproportionately white kids. That’s partly because of the legacy for a lot of African-American parents who still associate voc. ed. with second-class, dead-end dumping grounds for kids that schools didn’t believe could [succeed] academically.

But I worry less about these programs being a device that takes us back to the bad old tracking days. I worry more about whether the kids who most need these programs have access to them and are given the supports they need to be successful.

The easiest way to turn off employers is to send kids in who, for academic or attitudinal reasons, aren’t prepared to take the responsibility you need to have if you’re moving into a workplace.

You mention in the book that there’s a “forgotten half” of U.S. high school graduates who don’t earn certificates or degrees. How will this new movement—for sub-baccalaureate degrees and credentials—do right by that “forgotten half?”

This movement is principally about addressing that problem. With the warning that you just raised in the last question: How do we make sure that it’s not only the kids in the bottom half of the distribution that we’re sending off to one-year-certificate and two-year-degree programs.

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We know that we’ve got kids with strong academic potential, from poor families, who are not either going off to four-year colleges and universities or not succeeding there because there aren’t adequate supports. And we’ve got lots of bored, middle-class kids who go off to four-year colleges and universities because they don’t think there are any other respectable places for them to go, and they wash out, and that’s a waste of academic potential.

In an ideal world, you’d see a reasonable distribution of kids across these various options, so it wouldn’t be all the poor kids and kids of color in the one- and two-year programs, and all the middle-class kids in the four-year programs.

A lot of this comes back to big advising and exposure questions: Can we actually do a good job of matching kids with programs that are appropriate for their interests and talents and reduce the predictive power of race and class in determining who goes in which direction? That’s a perennial problem that’s plagued American high schools forever, the great sorting-machine problem.

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