- - Sunday, February 10, 2013

Evidence continues to mount that college is not for everyone, but the United States persists in the fiction that students are shortchanged without a four-year degree. The real losers in the final analysis are young people who are counseled to pursue a sheepskin when they have neither the interest nor ability.            

The downside of this policy is seen nationwide. For example, in California the new requirements have led to an increase in the high school dropout rate, as students became discouraged trying to pass academic courses necessary for admission to the state university systems. Yet these results were altogether predictable. When students see little connection between their studies and their future plans, they either act out or drop out. In either case, they become costly unintended collateral damage.

The Alliance for Excellent Education makes this unequivocally clear. The secondary education system in this country produces 1.2 million dropouts annually. If the dropouts graduated, the economy would likely benefit from nearly $154.3 billion in additional income over the course of their lifetimes. The numbers, ranging from $147 million in Vermont to $20.7 billion in California, reflect salaries, entitlements and criminal justice spending.

The picture in college is not much brighter. Students there aren’t learning very much. In “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa tracked several thousand undergraduates in two dozen universities. They reported that 45 percent of students do not significantly improve their critical thinking and writing skills after two years. Even after four years, only 36 percent did so. Although more than half of the freshmen who took the test didn’t take it again as seniors, the findings are not surprising. Too many students have no business being in college in the first place because they lack the wherewithal.


Despite these figures, reformers are in denial. They ignore the Harvard Graduate School of Education report titled “Pathways to Prosperity” that called into question the college-for-all obsession. Between now and 2018, about two-thirds of new jobs created will require some education beyond high school. However, a much smaller percentage will require a four-year college degree. Instead, about 14 million new jobs will be in mid-skill occupations that demand a post-secondary certificate or associate’s degree. 

Nevertheless, the United States alone looks down on vocational education. The closest we’ve come to supporting it on a national scale has been the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which is reauthorized every six years. Yet despite the evidence, President Obama has thrown his weight against vocational education in public high schools by proposing a 20 percent reduction in aid even as employers complain that they can’t find enough skilled workers at salaries close to $80,000.        

Vocational education remains a tough sell largely because it is anathema to the belief in democratization. Other nations have no trouble in differentiation. Singapore, for example, begins to sort students out with its Primary School Leaving Exam. Even if the process were to begin later on in high school, it still would meet with opposition here. In the 1990s, for example, high school shop-class programs were dismantled in the belief that what the country needed was knowledge workers.

Events since then have still not convinced reformers of the error of their ways. According to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown, 27 percent of those with a vocational license or certificate after high school earn more than the average holder of a bachelor’s degree. In fact, the only jobs that will be safe in the years ahead will be those unable to be off-shored electronically. That means plumbers, electricians and auto mechanics have a more secure livelihood than ever imagined. The next time your toilet becomes clogged on a Sunday, you’ll see why.

It’s time to rethink vocational education as a worthy partner in the curriculum. Career academies that combine academic and technical studies offer a promising way of addressing both the appalling dropout rate and meeting the needs of employers. More fundamentally, however, college is merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn. Whether we’re ready to acknowledge that reality is another story entirely.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week.