College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Career and College Ready for All

By Stu Silberman — September 25, 2013 4 min read
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The following is a post from guest blogger Mary Gwen Wheeler, executive director of 55,000 Degrees , a Louisville-based movement to increase college attainment and add another 55,000 college graduates in Louisville, Kentucky by 2020. Wheeler is also a member of the Kentucky Board of Education and the Prichard Committee .

I lead a cross-sector partnership whose bold mission is its name, 55,000 Degrees. Specifically, we’re working to add 55,000 more college graduates- 40,000 bachelors and 15,000 associates - in Louisville by 2020.

We’re pursuing this goal because our economic future demands it. The jobs of today and tomorrow increasingly require college degrees, and unless Louisville raises the bar on educational attainment we cannot compete effectively with our peer cities for jobs, companies and economic prosperity. This requires heavy lifting by everyone across the education spectrum, and for our K-12 system, it means graduating more students, and more who are college and career ready.

But while our mission is clear and specific, our vision is broad and inclusive. One of the “push-backs” I often get is “but not everyone needs to go to college.” We know that “college for all” is not the answer. We understand that if we are wildly successful and reach our 2020 goal, only half of Louisville’s adult workforce will hold college degrees.

First, “college” includes many types of post-secondary education, including technical schools and apprenticeships. And what about the other half, who don’t get an associate’s degree or higher?

For years, American high school education has directed students into two groups - college-bound students who focus on prep courses to qualify for university admission and job-bound students who focus on basic skills and vocational training on their way to entry-level jobs, apprenticeships, certificate programs and on-the-job training.

It’s increasingly clear this is a false dichotomy because the jobs of today and tomorrow are not so clearly divided. It’s much more of an education continuum with many different destinations short of a four-year college degree.

The Center on Education and Workforce at Georgetown University projects that 14 million job openings -- nearly a third of the jobs created during the 10-year period from 2008 to 2018 --will go to people with an associate’s degree or occupational certificate.

Many of these jobs will be in so-called “middle-skill” occupations - such as electrician, dental hygienist, paralegal and coder. These job holders earn more - much more in many cases - than people who stop their education with a high school diploma. And more than a quarter of people with post-secondary licenses and certificates - something short of an associate’s degree - will earn more than the average bachelor’s degree recipient, according to the Georgetown Center.

The mantra, then, for public education and K-12 partners, isn’t “college for all.” The message should be “career and college ready for all.”

In the 21st century workplace - whether that’s a factory floor, a high-rise office or a retail showroom - everyone needs the basics and beyond. They need foundational skills - reading, writing, math, and computer literacy - and lifelong learning skills such as critical thinking and problem solving. To understand their world and function effectively as citizens and workers, students need the basics of science and social studies. And all need to be prepared for continuous, lifelong learning in order to adapt to changing needs in the labor market.

Common Core standards are designed to help our children become career and college ready. The content is derived from the real-world knowledge needed to succeed on the job, in college and in life. When kids ask teachers today, “When am I ever going to use this?” our teachers can more clearly than ever before point to many jobs and careers that demand these skills.

Perhaps an even greater challenge in preparing our children for the 21st century workforce may be in showing the answer, not just telling them. Students learn better when they learn in context (experiential learning) and get motivated when they see how their studies are applied to real-world situations (project-based learning). That’s why Jefferson County Public Schools here in Louisville has instituted career-themed high schools with schools of study in areas like health, engineering, business and communications, and why they want all students - not just those on a “voc-tech” track - to graduate with a credentialed diploma.

Young people also benefit from seeing firsthand what’s ahead for them in the workforce before high school ends. A 2011 Harvard University report, “Pathways to Prosperity ,” makes a convincing argument that we should borrow from America’s past and Europe’s present by pushing business to offer more internships, apprenticeships and on-the-job training programs for young people.

That’s why all students should be encouraged to continue learning beyond high school. With more real-world insight and opportunities, more Kentucky high school students can make a more educated choice. At 55,000 Degrees, we’ll keep pushing many of them to choose “college” and all of them to choose “knowledge.”

The opinions expressed in Public Engagement & Ed Reform 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.