Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Even With Educated Workforce, U.S. College, Career Issues Loom

By Caralee J. Adams — January 09, 2012 11 min read
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If there were ever an argument for investing in career- and college-readiness, the impact of the economic crisis in recent years provides one: In 2009, unemployment globally was more than twice as high for those who did not complete high school compared with university graduates. In the United States, it was three times as high—15.8 percent for high school dropouts, compared with 4.9 percent for college graduates.

Those numbers offer an indicator that even though the United States overall has one of the most educated workforces in the world, its lead is slipping.

With 41 percent of the adult population holding a postsecondary degree, the United States ranks among the top five educated countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a global network of 34 developed countries that identifies and analyzes issues including education.

But among Americans ages 25 to 34, the U.S. ranks 15th in the percentage with a higher education degree compared with other OECD countries. The United States has the distinction of being the only OECD country, in fact, where attainment levels for those just entering the labor market are lower than those about to leave the labor market.

Globally, higher education is widely embraced as vital to economic growth—but countries differ in their approaches. In Asia, there is a commitment to improving education with national policies and focused curriculum to better prepare students for college. European countries have beefed up vocational systems and modernized career training.

“They’ve all gotten strong, while we’ve stayed the same,” says Nancy Hoffman, the author of Schooling the Workplace and the vice president and senior adviser at Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit organization based in Boston.

Sense of Urgency

As global competition ramps up, a new sense of urgency has emerged in the United States to learn from other systems and invest in getting students ready for college and careers. President Barack Obama has set a goal for the nation to take the world lead in college-graduation rates by 2020, and nonprofit education organizations have set similar targets. An element of the debate over the federal role in public education involves issues of career- and college-readiness, and the new common-core academic standards emphasize that theme as well.

In addressing the issue, the nation faces social, political, and structural challenges that include a diverse population, a long-standing commitment to educating all students, and a decentralized education system.

While there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, many countries that want to improve education face similar challenges, says Jim Hull, the senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Education at the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va. “We can learn from other countries. The U.S. is not as unique as we think we are,” he says. “Other countries are also dealing with poverty and diversity—sometimes more effectively. If we think we are so unique, it keeps us from looking to others to improve.”

Taking the Public's Pulse

Opinion surveys over the last five years offer an intriguing—and sometimes contradictory—window into American attitudes toward the nation’s public schools and how well they’re educating students in an era of global competition.

Future Readiness

  • 42% of American voters in a 2007 poll said other countries are winning the race to prepare children for 21st-century jobs
  • 13% said the United States does a better job

How the U.S. Stacks Up

  • 17% gave American public schools an A or B in a 2011 poll
  • 30% graded them D or F
  • 51% gave their hometown schools an A or B

Where the U.S. Falls Short

Fewer than half in a 2010 poll said schools do a good job preparing students for:

  • 44% College-level science
  • 45% College-level math
  • 46% College-level English

What’s the Problem

  • 56% said social problems and misbehaving students are high schools’ biggest problems
  • 31% cited low academic standards and outdated curricula

Hope vs. Reality

  • 94% of parents said it’s likely their children will attend college after graduating from high school
  • only 72% of students finished high school in 2008
  • and about 70% of those who graduated from high school in 2009 went on to college

Sources: Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2007); Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll (2011); Public Agenda (2010); National Center for Education Statistics (2009); EPE Research Center (2011)

The United States is hardly alone in facing the challenge of assuring its workforce remains globally competitive. At an international higher education forum in Washington late last year, officials from the European Union also voiced concern about the relevance of higher education degrees and better matching skills with workforce needs.

Xavier Prats Monne, the deputy director-general of the European Commission, which takes the lead in implementing E.U. policies, said he was struck by the similarities in the higher education agendas of the European community and the United States. For example, both have set concrete goals to increase postsecondary training by 2020. The main difference, the E.U. official noted, is that the funding for higher education tends to fall more heavily on the individual in America, while Europe makes more of a public investment.

There is a shared sense of urgency about the need for such schooling, however. At that same forum, U.S. Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter said that education beyond high school is essential in today’s knowledge society to move society forward. “We feel we are building a pipeline of people, but our challenge as a nation is to get those people across the finish line and into the jobs,” she says.

What’s Working

Experts say the United States is making some progress on defining what it means to be college and career ready. Adoption of the common core by most states has brought together educators from K-12 and higher education to better articulate the expectations for students progressing from high school to college. The high school standards aim to set a rigorous definition of college- and career-readiness and emphasize math, reading, and writing skills that are required in college and the workplace.

The nation also has been a leader in Advanced Placement and in dual-enrollment and early-college high schools where students can earn college credit while still in high school. Summer bridge programs are another strength of the American system, experts say, providing additional supports to help students transition into college. And states are driving innovation with new approaches to encouraging pathways to postsecondary training.

Some uniquely American values are woven into the process of moving students through high school and into college and work, according to students of the U.S. system.

“College for all” is the American approach, while other countries provide the education and training young people need to prepare for a career or calling, Hoffman writes in her book. If students fail or their interests change, they can try another arena. Students aren’t forced to commit early to one career path and tracked accordingly.

“We have a really strong emphasis on preparing for general education,” says David Conley, a professor of education policy and leadership in the college of education at the University of Oregon. “Community colleges allow for a second chance. … It’s part of the notion that education should be the great equalizer and never be closed off.”

Many nations look to the United States as a model for developing creative thinkers in college and careers.

Hamilton Gregg, an educational consultant who works for international schools in Beijing, says that although many high school graduates of Asian school systems are well-versed in math and science, they often don’t think analytically. “They really learn, but they can’t necessarily think creatively,” he says. Many Chinese look to come to America for college to experience that freedom, he says.

The 200-plus early-college high schools in the States are a promising model for propelling low-income and minority students into higher education.

The Dayton Early College Academy compresses high school to give urban students a taste of college, says Judy Hennessey, the superintendent of the 426-student academy, in Ohio. From 98 percent to 100 percent of each graduating class goes on to college, and 87 percent of those students will be the first in their families to go. Once there, 84 percent are on track to graduate in four years.

“Personalization of the school is a big factor,” says Hennessey. Teachers become surrogate parents and are accessible outside of school. Also, academics are ratcheted up, and after-school and weekend help sessions are available. “The difference is how hard you will work,” she says. “We don’t debate if someone is smart enough to go to college.”

Another approach to improving the odds for success in higher education is to reach down earlier to help middle school students identify their aspirations for college and career. Students who consider dropping out do so in middle school, not high school, contends Reza Namin, the superintendent of the 1,980-student Spencer-East Brookfield Regional School District in Spencer, Mass. His district helps middle schoolers create personalized road maps for their studies.

Beyond that, Namin says students could benefit from public school support into the first two years of college. His vision for Spencer-East Brookfield is to make it the first district in the country to create a P-14 system to provide a seamless transition into postsecondary education. That would save families money in college tuition and give students the incentive they need to continue toward a degree, he says. “Public schools need to be creative.”

Advanced Placement courses have expanded as a college-readiness strategy in recent years, too. About 704,000 students participated in the AP program in nearly 13,000 high schools in 1998-99. By 2009-10, there were 1.8 million students in nearly 17,900 high schools, according to the College Board.

“More schools are beginning to understand a minimum curriculum does not prepare students for success in college,” says Jim Miller, a past president of the National Association of College Admission Counseling and the coordinator of enrollment research at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. AP “gives students extra credit and shortens time they need to be in college, but its great value is the rigor, which helps student be more successful in college.”

Transition to Work

While the American system has its strengths, experts cite lessons from abroad that can be adapted to enhance college- and career-readiness.

In the past 15 years, states such as California along with the District of Columbia and other urban districts have declared algebra a goal for 8th graders after looking at the example of Japan. Today, more U.S. 8th graders take algebra than any other math course.

“It’s not that they were capable and we were not capable. There is no difference in brain capacity,” says Hull of the Center for Public Education. “We might go about teaching it differently, but overall, we are mentally capable.”

Countries with low unemployment for young people and high educational attainment have youth policies that help young people transition from schooling to work and view it as a societal responsibility, says Hoffman of Jobs for the Future.

Many European systems educate students until age 19 in the upper-secondary schools. Hoffman says there is respect for the vocational system, and in countries with some of the strongest vocational systems—Australia, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland—the majority of students choose that path because it provides work experience along with education.

The Netherlands, in particular, takes strong measures to keep students in postsecondary vocational training, Hoffman notes. A variety of supports, including subsidies for books and transportation, are provided to make sure students complete the program, and an aggressive policy is in force to recapture dropouts and get them into a mix of school and work. The country set a goal in 2002 for 18- to 24-year olds to cut in half the number of students leaving school early. By 2010, the number was down to less than 40,000, from 70,000.

In a number of nations, such as Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the Nordic countries, employers are engaged with schools. Students can be hired in apprenticeships, and structures have been put in place to orient students and provide on-site training, says Hoffman. “The business sector feels it has a responsibility to the younger generation, and it’s in their best interest to be involved in their education because they are the future labor force,” says Hoffman. “We don’t seem to have that in this country.”

Domenic Giandomenico, the director of education and workforce programs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says there is a steady, increasing awareness that the business community needs to get involved with education. “As businesses continue to find themselves in need of talent that simply is not available, and aware of the cost associated with that, they have become more engaged and active in making sure the talent pipeline that we have improves,” he says.

American businesses are looking to partnerships with education, such as ones in Germany, as models for mentoring, apprenticeships, and job-shadowing, Giandomenico says. But while the German system has clearly defined roles for schools, students, and businesses set out by law, attempts in the United States have not always worked because sometimes those expectations are not clear, he says.

“In too many cases here in the States, you wind up with students sitting around wondering what they should be doing, employers not really knowing what they should be doing with the students, and schools not knowing how they should follow up on those kinds of activities,” Giandomenico says. While local business groups can help bridge that communication, he says it’s labor-intensive, and many smaller chambers don’t have the capacity.

Drawing Lessons

The lesson for America is not any one policy or practice that can turn education around, says Anthony Jackson, the vice president of education for the New York City-based Asia Society, in Los Angeles. Policies to provide a focused national curriculum and assessment system provide a common pathway for college access and attainment for all students. While a number of the top-performing Asian education systems are working to reduce dependence on a single college-entrance examination, the current systems do provide a relatively level playing field for students seeking to gain admission to higher education.

“It’s a systematic approach from top to bottom,” he says. Many initiatives have to work together—teacher recruitment, teacher training, curriculum changes, assessment, technology, and a strong political will for change.

It’s also important, as in the case of Singapore, to create multiple pathways to postsecondary education that include updating vocational and technical education systems, and to establish more competency-based degree programs that are suited to the development of specific, marketable skills, says Jackson.

Rather than looking for a silver bullet, the United States has to do the hard work and set up systems to reach its education goals, Jackson says. “It is the ticket to economic viability and growth in an information-driven world.”

Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education, at www.luminafoundation.org.


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