Harvard: ‘College for all’ fails students

There’s one path to success — go to college to earn a bachelor’s degree — most high school students are told.  Only about 30 percent will earn a degree. “College for all” isn’t working for most students argues a new report by Harvard’s Pathways to Prosperity project.  Young people need alternative paths to adulthood, including better counseling, high-quality career education, apprenticeships and job training based at community colleges. Those who lack the academic skill or motivation to earn a bachelor’s degree should know about “middle-skill jobs” that pay middle-class wages.

. . . while the United States is expected to create 47 million jobs in the 10-year period ending in 2018, only a third of these jobs will require a bachelor’s or higher degree. Almost as many jobs – some 30 percent – will only require an associate’s degree or a post-secondary occupational credential.

The report asks employers to create more work-based learning opportunities for young adults.

“We are the only developed nation that depends so exclusively on its higher education system as the sole institutional vehicle to help young people transition from secondary school to careers, and from adolescence to adulthood,” says Robert Schwartz, academic dean and professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, who heads the Pathways to Prosperity Project.

In response to the “college for all” movement, districts and states are requiring a college-prep curriculum based on four-year universities’ admissions requirements   for all high school students. “Unless we are willing to provide more flexibility and choice in the last two years of high school, and more opportunities for students to pursue program options that link work and learning, we will continue to lose far too many young people along the path to graduation,” Schwartz says.

Career and technical education has been “the neglected stepchild of education reform,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the report’s Washington launch. “That neglect has to stop,” Duncan said.

Some fear disadvantaged students will be tracked into “watered-down programs that curtail their prospects,” notes Education Week. But Schwartz is “a prominent champion of higher academic expectations for all students” and co-author, Ronald Ferguson, director of Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative, “is a national expert on improving learning opportunities for disadvantaged children.”

Rather than derailing some students from higher learning, their system would actually open more of those pathways, (the authors) say, by offering sound college preparation and rigorous career-focused, real-world learning, and by defining clear routes from secondary school into certificate or college programs.

“College for all” advocates say it’s too early to give up. The college-readiness agenda is very new, said Michael Cohen, who succeeded Schwartz as the president of Achieve, which works with states to raise academic expectations. “To say we’ve tried this and it failed seems a bit premature, like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” he said. Besides, Cohen said, “college for all” really means “some form of training after high school.”

“Every single time we create multiple tracks, we always send disproportionate numbers of poor kids and kids of color down the lesser one,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust.  College expectations are not the norm for black and Hispanic high school students, who are half as likely as white classmates to enroll in a “full college-ready curriculum.”

If we were teaching all of our kids to the levels reached by 10th-graders in Finland, students and their parents might have a base of knowledge and skills strong enough to make informed choices of the sort imagined in this report – real choices, rather than those forced on students who weren’t prepared for much of anything.

. . .  in the German system the authors hold up as an example of success, the three high school tracks have been deeply segregated by income and ethnicity, with mainly affluent Germans attending the college-prep schools while low-income and immigrant students are assigned to the two lower options.

Education Trust is working with ConnectEd California and several school districts on linking career-oriented learning with college-prep classes.

The report praises ConnectEd California’s Linked Learning initiative and Massachusetts’ network of regional vocational-technical schools.

At Construction Technology Academy at Kearny High School in San Diego, students  study architecture, engineering, and construction as well as the typical core curriculum. Some go on to construction apprenticeships, while others study at  community colleges or universities, said Gary Hoachlander of ConnectEd.

Update:  Everybody needs college-prep skills — including future welders, tool and die makers and elevator installers — argues Rishawn Biddle on Dropout Nation.

The 52-page report along wrongfully perpetuates a century-old philosophy — that poor and minority kids aren’t capable of high-quality, college-level education — that is condemning far too many young men and women to poverty and prison.

What condemns young people to poverty is the failure to learn reading, writing and math (and science, history and civics), followed by the decision to drop out of high school.  I think many low achievers could be motivated to learn academic skills in order to train for a job. If the only motivation is the chance to spend more years in a classroom — almost certainly a remedial classroom — with a better job as a vague hope for the distant future . . .  Maybe a few kids will catch college fever and go all the way to a bachelor’s degree. But not very many.

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  1. College for all makes as little sense as one-size-fits-all shoes.

  2. I recently read that one of the driving forces of the current situation in Tunisia is very high unemployment, (over 30%) among college graduates, with much lower unemployment in other sectors. College is free for all those who pass the designated exam at the end of secondary school and 30-40k graduate each year, into an economy that has no appropriate jobs for them. They are unhappy with their situation and may have been overrepresented in public protests. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the data and can’t remember where I read it, but it’s interesting, if true.

  3. momof4-
    I have read a lot of stories over the past 10 years detailing the growth of a disgruntled college-educated class in many Middle Eastern countries. This has also been suggested as a contributing factor to the growth of Muslim extremism.

  4. Kati Haycock is right that, up until now or maybe the recent past, we didn’t find and nurture talent in low-income and minority students as we did in middle class students. But the answer is not to push everyone into college. At this point, we have too many middle class students going to college as well.

    We should be aiming for a system where no-one is barred from attending a 4-year college by their income or race. It will still be a while before college-going rates are equal across all income levels, because unfortunately we don’t yet have a K-12 system that is powerful enough to give all children at equivalent ability levels but different income levels equal traction to be ready for a 4-year degree program. And we may never have such a system. The fact is, we can’t expect to fix every challenge in every child’s life.

    But we sure can do a much better job of matching graduating high school students with a better range of post-secondary options that they stand a good chance of completing — unlike what currently happens at the lower tier of 4-year colleges, where dropout rates are astounding and students end up feeling they’ve been force-marched through a curriculum they dont’ want, in order to get a credential that is pretty meaningless in practicial terms. And, I repeat, this goes for a substantial number of middle class students as well.

  5. From the Dropout Nation link:

    “The problem with that line is that in reality, the high levels of reading, math and science literacy needed to graduate from college are also needed for high-paying blue-collar jobs. Welders, for example, need strong trigonometry skills while machine tool and die makers are often times the same kind of top math students that go into the tech sector. Elevator installers-repairmen need strong science skills in order because their work combines electrical, structural and mechanical engineering skills; the same is true for electrical and electronics installers who work in power plants.”

    This is true and not true. Certainly there are welders around who can’t do trig or electricians without any real math, but they are the low-level, poorly-paid representatives of their trades. I work for a company that employs “green” workers to install equipment at customer’s sites. Do these folks have degrees? Mostly not. Does their supervisor? Absolutely. Unless you want to stay at the bottom your whole life, the degree is the easiest way up.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    A degree says you’ve learned something.
    A degree says you’ve learned something useful to the employer in question–or not.
    A degree says you’re trainable.
    A degree is a credential without which your other talents will not cross the hiring office’ desk.
    One or more of the above are useful.