More Options Needed for the Academic Middle

Jason Fertig

Before there was Academically Adrift, there was Other Ways to Win: Creating Alternatives for High School Graduates by professors Kenneth Gray and Edwin Herr.

Other ways to win is the authors’ catchphrase – readers will find every instance in the book italicized – for the notion that everyone, regardless of academic motivation and ability, sees a 4-year college degree as the only way towards true career success. 

Gray and Herr’s book presents the well-argued case for developing multiple paths for career success that go beyond attending that 4-year university.  These concerns are familiar to those involved with the higher education bubble debate in 2011, but interestingly, Gray and Herr first made their argument in 1995.

Similar in writing style and methodology to Academically Adrift, Other Ways to Win’s thesis is formulated from data gathered from students surveyed by the National Center for Educational Statistics.  But, this book differs from modern counterparts in its more positive portrayal of those deemed unsuited for college.  These students, whom the authors deem the “academic middle” and below, stand the least to gain from college, but current parental and social pressure on these students to go anyway creates few winners as many of them drop out, incur burdensome debt, or become underemployed. 

Gray and Herr do not aim to bash the academic middle by calling them lazy pleasure-seekers (even though some likely are).  Instead they characterize these students as individuals with aptitudes for careers that are not conducive to prolonged periods of book learning.  Hence, these students need to be presented with various options to nurture them for success throughout high school, instead of being demoralized for not having a top-notch GPA in the traditional curriculum.

Other Ways to Win provides powerful ammo against those who favor college for all because of statistics that point to a wage premium for a college degree.  Gray and Herr do not try to decouple training and education.  Rather, they disarm the wage premium argument by agreeing that such a premium exists, but it is not a guarantee – it is a risk.  Similar to a best hitter in professional baseball facing an average hurler on the mound, there is a high likelihood of a hit because his batting average is high; but on average, he will make an out over 50% of the time.  Thus, the hit is probable, not guaranteed. 

Applying this logic to job-seekers, for many professional positions (whether in a cubicle or an operating room), the college degree is a barrier to entry.  But especially in down economies, there can be fewer corporate, legal, and medical jobs available than there are top students graduating college and entering the workforce.  Hence, investing in and obtaining a degree involves unknowingly taking a calculated risk that the holder will obtain a higher-paying job in the professional ranks instead of becoming underemployed in a job in which a degree is not needed.  Gray and Herr articulate this point in a statement that needs to be memorized by anyone questioning the value of college today:

On average, technical workers without a 4-year college degree will earn higher salaries than all 4-year college graduates except those who find work in the professional ranks.

That statement rings true for many who question the worth of college, but as Gray and Herr state, changing the status quo is politically difficult.  It requires not only reforming the inside of classrooms, but also reforming the way students and their parents are involved in career preparation. 

That is not easy.

High schools need to offer additional tracks in addition to traditional college prep.  These tracks exist today, sort of, but anything other than preparation for college is reserved for those with poor performance who already have one foot out the school door.  It is rare for an academically gifted student to shun college to take more auto shop courses.

Furthermore, even if high schools were to bolster these tracks, it is a hard sell for teachers and guidance counselors to tell parents that Junior is better off pursuing a technical education somewhere other than a 4-year college.  They might as well throw in that junior is too ugly to attract a spouse while they’re at it.  To most people, “Choose a path other than college” translates, “You will never be as successful as others.”  In the worst cases, the recommendation is seen as prejudiced if the given student is anything but a white male.

That needs to change.

Even if high schools get better at the hard sell of other ways to win, are today’s 18-year-olds ready?  As many of the Gen Y and Millennial generation are moving back home after college and remaining dependent on Mom and Dad through their 20s, the idea that more 18-year-olds will be self-sufficient is not promising

But even with the negative headwinds for change, Gray and Herr are optimistic that reform is possible.  They spend the last third of Other Ways to Win providing suggestions for involving students and parents in the creation of career plans, and proposing course sequences for alternate tracks beyond college.

While this book is not perfect – the authors do romanticize the weaker students a little too much – it deserves to be read by all those interested in educational reform because the thesis is even more salient today than it was when it was first published, during the Clinton Administration. 

Yet beyond raising awareness of the need for other ways to win, the real challenge is whether these options will be voluntarily created before any higher education bubble pops or if it will take a true crisis to move the cheese. 

Image: Geograph, Public Domain

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