Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

‘College for All’ Campaign Getting a Second Look

By Catherine Gewertz — May 31, 2011 10 min read
Teacher Joel Buringrud, seated center, watches as students perform a musical pantomime in a class at Harmony Magnet Academy in Strathmore, Calif. The class is part of a career pathway in performing arts created by the district.
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After years of intense focus by American policy leaders and educators on college readiness, a growing chorus is calling for schools to better prepare students for futures that might not include four-year degrees.

A recent Harvard University report synthesized concerns that had long been simmering as the country’s dominant education push has been to raise academic standards and make more young people into successful college students. By pressing students onto a college path, some observers wonder, are we shortchanging students whose future plans might not include a baccalaureate degree? Can we create preparation options that truly open all doors for all students?

The “Pathways to Prosperity” study, released in February, argued that job-market realities and college-completion patterns demand that schools pay more attention to the large swath of students who graduate from high school but might not earn four-year college degrees. (“Harvard Report Questions Value of ‘College for All’,” February 2, 2011.)

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, according to data cited in the report. Many of those jobs carry decent wages, as well: One-quarter of those who hold such credentials earn more than the average bachelor’s-degree holder, the report says.

The study 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, then, becomes of the so-called “forgotten half” who don’t? Add to that the growing cost of college—student-loan debt, averaging $24,000 per student, now outpaces credit card debt—and more questions arise about presuming everyone should aim for college, some experts say.

Shifts in emphasis between career and college preparation have pushed and pulled American high schools for decades. Career focus was minimized as the vocational and trade schools of the 1940s gave way to comprehensive high schools. The 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” launched the modern education standards movement with its plea for stronger academic preparation. And, as new global economic realities impose demands on educational systems to prepare students in new ways, the question of career preparation on deeper, higher levels has reasserted itself, forcing educators to grapple with how best to ready students for whatever lies after high school.

“That whole space, between a high school diploma and a four-year college degree, has been overlooked,” says Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, whose labor-market research was cited in the “Pathways to Prosperity” report. “The reform trajectory we’ve been on since ‘A Nation at Risk’ was a noble goal, but along the way, we’ve set aside every pathway but one, and we’ve left a lot of people behind.”

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Yet, while research shows that today’s students need “some” postsecondary education or training to make a good living in today’s economy, the nation has yet to flesh out what that means short of a baccalaureate degree.

Some observers fear, however, that a shift toward career preparation would ease the pressure on schools to provide top-notch academics for every child, reproducing a dynamic that has harmed generations of students: Those perceived to be “college material” are immersed in challenging courses, while those sized up as less capable or motivated get a watered-down education.

Cognizant of the potent issues they’re facing, some parts of the education world are trying hard to meet the needs of students whose future plans might not include a university.

Some schools or programs are focusing on preparing students for jobs in sectors of the market that have been identified as promising. Henry Ford Early College in Dearborn, Mich., prepares students to graduate with a high school diploma, an associate degree, and a certification in an allied health field. The program was instituted when a local hospital network, alarmed by a looming shortage in medical personnel, reached out to the community college and public school systems.

A network of schools in California is designed around the idea that career preparation and college preparation should blend seamlessly, keeping all doors open for students. The Linked Learning initiative is building a half-dozen or more career pathways in each of nine school districts, on the theory that students can get all the math, English, science, and social studies they need for a university, along with technical and job skills, but do it in a way that makes learning more fun and gives them real, relevant work experience.

Calls for at least a year of education or training after high school, as President Barack Obama has issued, put special pressure on community colleges, which are arguably the most democratic of higher education institutions, with their low price tags, broad missions, and open admissions policies.

Surgical technician Willemina Steen, far right, leads Henry Ford Early College students McKenzie Antczak, Kaylee Smith, and Jillian Kettlewell (from left to right) in a clinical rotation at Henry Ford Hospital in Dearborn, Mich. The early college was created partly to fill expected labor shortages in the health field.

Schools like Northern Virginia Community College, or NOVA, are forging initiatives that cross traditional boundaries to strengthen transitions from high school into community college on the one end, and into jobs and universities on the other. NOVA crafted a program that supports high school students as they complete their studies, and sticks with them through community college. Students in the program are twice as likely as typical NOVA students to complete associate degrees. Those who finish in good standing are guaranteed spots at a Virginia state university.

At the other end of the pipeline, NOVA is expanding partnerships with business to align curricula with workplace needs and open up job pathways. It also works with nonprofits such as the Boston-based Year Up, which trains students for internships that offer not only job skills but also college credit—a lure to pursue further education.

“We’re not going to solve this problem by everyone staying in place and playing by the rules,” NOVA President Robert Templin Jr., said this past winter in discussing the college’s multipronged approach to preparing students for the future.

Even as community colleges work to meet the expanding hopes placed on them, they battle questions about their capacity to deliver. Plagued by low completion and transfer rates, and beset by thinning state support, public two-year colleges face the daunting task of serving a particularly vast—and growing—array of students.

Particular questions have arisen in the fast-growing for-profit college sector. Most of those private schools rely on public money, since large proportions of their students receive federal financial aid. For-profit colleges have grabbed headlines as they’ve come under close scrutiny for charging high tuition and engaging in questionable recruiting and marketing practices. But many are doing better at retaining students than their public community college counterparts.

The recent economic recession has also prompted some to reconsider the college-for-all path: Why accumulate back-breaking debt loads when good-paying jobs can be had with a smaller investment? To help young people weigh those decisions and clue schools in on how they might tailor their instruction accordingly, some research is now applying a cost-benefit analysis to postsecondary preparation. Researchers are exploring how much given routes cost to complete, and what they yield in lifetime earnings. Whether schools can retool themselves nimbly enough to respond to that “bang for the buck” analysis, however—and whether such retooling would be wise—are open questions.

Unanswered questions dog the effort to better serve students who might not earn university degrees. And how those questions get answered carries big consequences for students.

Some scholars, for example, question whether President Obama’s call for one year of postsecondary training is sufficient. Clifford Adelman, a researcher whose work for the U.S. Department of Education in the late 1990s helped shape the field’s thinking about what constitutes sound academic preparation for college, says that although occupational certificates are becoming “the new currency” in the push for more postsecondary education, the value of many certificates is questionable because of a lack of consensus on the competencies required to earn them.

“One year of training means very little,” says Adelman, a senior associate with the Institute for Higher Education Policy, in Washington. “Talk to me about associate degrees. Now you’re talking about credentials with some earning power.”

There are also concerns about ensuring a level playing field. If school systems are to build viable pathways that don’t necessarily end with a bachelor’s degree, all children must be informed, fully and early, about their options, some advocates point out. How and when will adolescents decide what pathways to pursue, or will others decide for them?

Northern Virginia Community College student Chessy Dintruff takes a final exam in Alexandria, Va. The school’s Pathway to the Baccalaureate program prepared her to enroll in a four-year college this fall.

A worrisome missing piece in that formula is counseling capacity. High school counselors now carry an average load of 270 students, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, based in Arlington, Va. Viewed across the K-12 spectrum—where more counselors would have to be deployed to fill the information gap among younger students—the ratio rises to 457-to-1.

School counselors do not typically receive training in career and college-admissions counseling, and are already overextended, says David Hawkins, the director of public policy and research for NACAC. Reworking school systems to reflect the vision of the recent Harvard report demands “exponentially” more expertise of counselors, and necessitates placing that support far earlier in students’ lives, he says. The vision, in effect, demands a much larger supply of counselors and a fundamental change in how they are trained and deployed, Hawkins says.

Perhaps the area of greatest concern is the potential for the new pathways to quietly facilitate lower standards for some students. Options that don’t end in a bachelor’s degree will fail to help disadvantaged students see themselves as college material, and predictably channel them into less promising options, forming an “educational caste system,” according to Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington group that presses for better opportunities for low-income and minority students.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan insists the multiple-options vision can be carried off fairly. “It’s not about tracking,” he said at a panel discussion in February. “It’s about giving students a more robust set of options and letting them choose their own path.”

Andrés Alonso, the chief executive officer of the Baltimore city schools, put an even finer point on it. The question, he said at the same meeting, is “not whether you’re tracking our kids, but how are you training our kids so they can survive?”

The challenge is to create a multitude of options “without lowering the quality of any of the choices,” says Gary Hoachlander, the president of ConnectEd, which oversees the Linked Learning initiative in California.

Woven into the debate about what students’ end goals should be are questions about what they must learn. Arguments persist about whether good college preparation is the same as good job preparation. And to what level of college preparation should college-bound students be held, given the wide academic variations between universities? How should job preparation differ depending on what jobs students aspire to? Or do such variations in preparation inherently create inequities?

The Harvard report reignited discussions about options for students, experts say, posing confounding questions about how education systems can respond to varying student needs and desires without lowering standards, translating later into closed doors.

While holding all students to one high standard reflects a “healthy refusal to deny opportunity to anybody,” says Carnevale, the labor-market analyst, the realities of work and college demand “a more articulate strategy” that includes more choices for students. But doing so “requires a sophistication that we might not be capable of,” he says. “So we might be asking for trouble.”

Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.


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