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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

‘College for all’ works — for 16% of students

Our education system fails most students, argues Oren Cass, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and author of How the Other Half Learns.  Looking at students entering ninth grade, only 16 percent “manage to smoothly travel the high school-to-college-to-career pipeline that we take to be the system’s goal.”

High school graduation rates have increased, but there’s “troubling evidence that those increases are driven by declining standardsdata manipulation, and outright fraud,” Cass writes. “Standardized test scores have not improved since the 1970s, and SAT scores have declined.”

College enrollment is up, but there’s been little increase in four-year college graduates. Of those who do earn a bachelor’s degree, underemployment is common: 37 percent to 47 percent of recent graduates are in jobs that don’t require a college degree.

Our “college or bust” education system “is producing too few college graduates and too many busts,” Cass writes. High schools fail to offer pathways to motivate students who lack the aptitude or interest to complete a bachelor’s degree.

If college were truly the necessary and sufficient “ticket to the middle class,” then perhaps we might justify a system that pushes as hard as possible in that direction, even at the expense of those who fall short. But the reality of our labor market is quite different. Yes, the most successful college graduates are the economy’s top earners. But the bottom half of the earnings distribution for college grads—not just enrollees, but graduates—sits lower than the top half of the earnings distribution for those with only a high school education.

In other developed economies, vocational programs that prepare high school graduates for skilled work “are the norm,” Cass writes. In the U.S. “they are few and far between, underfunded and deprioritized,” considering only fit for “other people’s kids.”

Cass has a book, The Once and Future Worker coming out in November.

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