Is College the Only Pathway to Prosperity?

Ashley Thorne

The AAUP disapproves of a new report, Pathways to Prosperity, issued by the Harvard Graduate School of Education last week. The report argues that we need to give young people options (“pathways”) for achieving successful adult lives beyond just expecting everyone to go to college. The AAUP shakes its head in vigorous dissent. In its view college is the pathway—and we’ll be lost if we wander away from it.

Who is correct?

The Pathways report, authored chiefly and directed by Business Week reporter William C. Symonds, seeks to identify an American version of other countries’ emphasis on career training as early as middle school. “In sharp contrast to the U.S., vocational education is seen as a mainstream, well-respected pathway in these countries, while a university education is reserved for people interested in a narrower band of professions like law, medicine, and research,” the report says (page 21).

Pathways starts by laying a case for why the mindset about college in America today is not working: “Continuing on our current course, by placing almost all our bets on classroom-based pedagogy, is likely to produce little more than the marginal gains we’ve seen over the past two decades. And that rate of progress is simply unacceptable for anyone who cares about the future of America.” (page 23)

Many students are dropping out of high school and becoming delinquents and single mothers. Those who complete their schooling are often unemployed and remain dependent on their parents. The report’s authors argue that this is because there is not enough correlation between studies and future careers. For instance, teens’ and college students’ jobs – often necessary to help pay for tuition – can subtract from their study time and cause them to lose academic motivation. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa make this argument in their new book Academically Adrift; they note that working off-campus and working over 10 hours a week on-campus significantly diminishes student performance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA).

The Pathways authors are far from hostile to mass higher education. Indeed, given their view about the downside of making college too idealized, it seems odd that they actually favor the goals set in recent years by President Obama, the College Board, and the Lumina Foundation to significantly increase America’s percentage of college graduates in the next decade or 15 years. Those goals would more than double the number of students currently enrolled in college. Already we know that, as Arum and Roksa point out in their book, more than a third of college students make virtually no intellectual progress in their entire time in college. Doubling the size of our enrollments would make it even harder for them to learn and would require a significant lowering of academic standards to accommodate the influx of under-qualified students.

Nonetheless the authors believe that the rallying cry, “college for all,” is an unhelpful motto because all won’t be able to afford or complete college, and because even if these goals were to be achieved, they leave out a good 40-45% of the population. How are we going to help them enter adulthood? Pathways calls this non-college-bound population “the forgotten half.”

Instead, the authors assert, we should aspire to fulfill President Obama’s call on Americans in February 2009 to “commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training.” (emphasis mine) Obama said “This can be community college, a four-year school, vocational training, or an apprenticeship.”

Vocational training and apprenticeships have so far played little role in the ensuing discussion within higher education. The Harvard report is the first academic study to take these options seriously. 

Using this charge as a springboard, and citing successes in other countries, such as Germany, Switzerland, and Australia, the report outlines three goals:

  1. Broaden the range of pathways for young people. Adapt Common Core standards to allow upperclassmen high school students to opt for hands-on career training. This can better engage bored students and keep them motivated to learn. Three obstacles to this are inadequate career counseling, inconsistent quality in career training education (CTE), and our culture’s tendency to disparage CTE.
  2. Expand employers’ roles. Encourage employers to get involved earlier by setting standards and designing programs of study. Incorporate career training starting in middle school through “learning exchanges.” Offer part-time jobs to high school students.
  3. Develop a new “social compact” – a cultural shift in mindset. As a culture, we need to take more “collective responsibility” for the training of our younger generations. Some countries have adopted a system of mutual obligation in which families can lose social benefits if their children drop out of school. One such compact in the United States could be to make Pell grants contingent upon “gainful employment in a recognized occupation” (language from the Higher Education Act intended for for-profit colleges). 

For each of its goals, the report points to examples of budding and successful programs already in existence.

While the higher education establishment has been slow to reckon with alternative “pathways,” the discussion outside academe has been vigorous. One of the top ten segments on the Tech Ticker last year was Formula Capital’s James Altucher offering his view that you shouldn’t send your kids to college. Now he is back with, “Eight Alternatives to Sending Your Kids to College.” Another resource is, an easy-to-use website to help high school students decide what to do as they begin adulthood. It has three branches: career, college, and military, and it has clear information and step-by-step guides for each. 

All in all, Pathways to Prosperity makes a needed case for not restricting the American dream to college graduates. But Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, believes that the report’s goals would ultimately limit opportunities for minority and low-income students. This demographic (especially in community colleges) would be the one most heavily pressured to choose career training over traditional higher education. Rhoades says that the Pathways study “portends a narrowed set of largely class-based educational paths that will reduce rather than expand educational opportunity.” Tracking students into career training too early will take away many of their choices and discriminate along the lines of class and race, Rhoades argues. For that reason, the AAUP rejects the ideas put forth by the Pathways report.

Indeed, asking students to choose career paths before they are ready could prevent them from learning about other, perhaps better options. But Pathways isn’t suggesting that we shuttle middle-schoolers into career tracks – rather, it suggests that we don’t make college the sole prerequisite for success. Many students won’t know in middle and high school what vocation they want to pursue, and going to college can help them see the spectrum of opportunities more clearly. For others, however, career training can help prevent them from dropping out of school and start them on their way to making a good living.

The greatest value of the Pathways report is in its openness to the true diversity of human life. It acknowledges that some people naturally gravitate toward intellectual exercise and some prefer more hands-on experience. Thus, college is one sensible option but there are other good things that bright and talented young people can do. This recognition could be the first step in removing the cultural stigma surrounding career training, apprenticeships, military service, and other non-college options. That bias, our culture’s tendency to look down on such options, is likely the reason that Rhoades looks on them as “limiting” and “narrowing.”

Like Rhoades, RiShawn Biddle of Dropout Nation says we need to “Stop Limiting Poor and Minority Kids with Low Expectations.” He argues that the real reason these students struggle academically more than other students is because they aren’t held to high expectations. “Expectations matter,” he writes.

Yes, expectations do matter, which is exactly why it does not serve students well to admit them to college if they are not prepared for college-level work. Doing so fails them upward and leaves a vacuum of missed opportunity that could have been filled with training in useful lifelong skills.

Rhoades says that we know we can afford a mass expansion of higher education because we could afford the Wall Street bailouts. It’s an appropriate comparison, albeit misguided about America’s fiscal health. Admitting unqualified students to college is the academic equivalent of a bailout. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported that in 2009, only 41% of high school graduates in New York State, and only 23% in New York City, were prepared for college. Yet many of them are going to college anyway.  

As a nation, we need more, not fewer, alternatives to college. That doesn’t mean no one should go to college, or that we should reserve it for the brainy elite, but it means that we should think more openly about other possibilities. The Pathways report has taken the lead to propose ideas. Gary Rhoades and the AAUP have chosen to remain closed-minded. If the United States is to flourish, it should embrace the idea of multiple pathways for its people. 

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