Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"Does Everyone Need A College Degree?" - No, and We Should Stop Pretending Everyone Does

This Christian Science Monitor article about a Harvard study that suggests that not everyone needs a college degree got me thinking about the year I spent studying at a German university.

When I was living there, one of the aspects about the German education system that I found quite fascinating (and, at the time, a bit horrifying) was that they track their children into different middle and high schools quite early, at around age 10 or so, if I remember correctly. At the risk of oversimplifying, some kids are put on a university track, some are put on a professional track (similar to an associate's degree in the U.S. - accountants, nurses, etc.), and some are put on a trade track, to learn a skill like plumbing, HVAC installation, etc. Of course, it is possible (though not trouble-free) to switch tracks once a child has been put on a particular track.

While I think the German system might track kids into a particular path a little too early, I definitely see the value in a secondary education system that does not pretend that all kids are going to go to college, and my alma mater agrees:
A new report released by Harvard Wednesday states in some of the strongest terms yet that such a “college for all” emphasis may actually harm many American students – keeping them from having a smooth transition from adolescence to adulthood and a viable career. “The American system for preparing young people to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults is clearly badly broken,” concludes the report, “Pathways to Prosperity” (pdf).
Despite a clear message that college is important – and a pervasive desire among young students to attend college – only about 30 percent of Americans complete a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s, with another 10 percent completing an associate’s degree by then. A massive effort in recent decades to increase those numbers has improved them only slightly.
“It would be fine if we had an alternative system [for students who don’t get college degrees], but we’re virtually unique among industrialized countries in terms of not having another system and relying so heavily on higher education,” says Robert Schwartz, who heads the Pathways to Prosperity project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
Emphasizing college as the only path may actually cause some students – who are bored in class but could enjoy learning that’s more entwined with the workplace – to drop out, he adds. “If the image [of college] is more years of just sitting in classrooms, that’s not very persuasive.”
Whether students opt for college or not, they need a range of skills to be employable in the long term, so “college and career-ready skills are really no longer two separate tracks,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Wednesday in Washington at an event releasing the report, according to prepared remarks.
Most European countries offer alternative non-university track programs that combine school and workplace learning (and often involve apprenticeships) in a way that gives non-university-bound students qualifications or certifications that have real value in the marketplace - which we are sorely lacking here in the U.S.

A better system might be to have a common curriculum through grade 9 or 10 (as in many Scandinavian countries) and then allow students to pick a different professional or trade path. In Europe, somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of kids follow these non-university paths - numbers that line up with the U.S.'s own bachelor's degree completion rate of about 30% of the population.

In fact, many of the career fields predicted to grow most between now and 2018 require credentials other than a bachelor's or associate's degree, and many of these opportunities will offer solid jobs at good wages. From a public policy perspective, it would be far better to help students who aren't excited by a bachelor's degree to get these professional credentials than to create an even larger pool of college-educated kids who end up working in jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree:
Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree .... This is even true at the doctoral and professional level—there are 5,057 janitors in the U.S. with Ph.D.’s, other doctorates, or professional degrees.
Whatever happens, it's obvious that something's got to change - for example, in New York, most high school students aren't ready for college.

1 comment:

  1. I wholeheartedly agree, and have after I lived in France.

    Another benefit is that the college track kids aren't slowed down by being in classes that try to help the non-college-bound to keep up.

    Another one is that people in jobs like waiting or welding are in it because they chose it, and have training for it--- it's not just something they do 'cause there's nothing else for them. This raises the quality of service.

    Indeed, in France, there are entire high schools dedicated to food service... and they train at lunch by waiting on, and cooking gourmet meals for, other students and faculty. Not a bad job perk!

    One impediment to this is the local-based school district. I don't know about Germany, but French high schools are regional (~county-wide). Not every small burg can afford multiple high schools.

    I'm no fan of town-based school districts, but they're part of American culture, so they'll be hard to get rid of, even with an "every school a magnet school" approach.