Bill Maxwell

Obsession with college exacts a toll

America's obsession with attending a four-year college is hurting the nation in at least one significant and unintended way.

Scholars of the "Pathways to Prosperity" project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education argue in a new report that by focusing too much on classroom-based academics, public schools shortchange large numbers of students who need preparation for careers not requiring a bachelor's degree.

This obsession with universal college attendance is not new. It became the gospel with the publication of "A Nation at Risk" in 1983, a blue-ribbon report commissioned by President Ronald Reagan to analyze the quality of our schools. The report's conclusion was that the quality of our schools was "being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity."

According to Harvard's "Pathways" report, the United States needs a school system that establishes career options for students as early as middle school. The options should specify the coursework and the training students will need. This approach will enable students, along with their parents, to map pathways toward the work they seek.

The report is receiving a lot of attention nationwide mainly because of the bona fides of its authors, Ronald Ferguson and Robert B. Schwartz. An expert on improving learning opportunities for disadvantaged children, Ferguson is the director of Harvard's Achievement Gap Initiative. Schwartz directs Harvard's Education and Management Program and was the founding president of Achieve Inc., an independent, bipartisan, nonprofit organization created by the nation's governors and corporate leaders to help states raise standards and improve performance in the schools.

Critics are voicing the usual concerns about institutionalized inequity. They worry that the Ferguson-Schwartz proposal would encourage a new level of tracking — shoving disadvantaged students into inferior programs that shortchange and isolate them even more.

Ferguson and Schwartz disagree. As the system currently operates, they argue, education opportunities stop after high school for too many students who have low or no prospects of attending a four-year college. Beginning in middle school, their plan widens opportunities for such students by providing solid college preparation and real-world, career-oriented teaching and training that lead to appropriate college or certificate programs. If, say, a student wants to be an electrician, training and career counseling would be available. If a student wants to be a lawyer, an academic pathway would be there for her to follow.

"Every high school graduate should find viable ways of pursuing both a career and a meaningful postsecondary degree or credential," the report states. "For too many of our youth, we have treated preparing for college versus preparing for a career as mutually exclusive options."

Knowing that their effort to open more nonacademic avenues to successful careers would hit many of the hot buttons in education, the authors want their critics to understand a main tenet of their proposal: While students should not be shunted into a career track at an early age, the courses required to enter the most demanding four-year colleges should not be forced on students wanting careers with fewer academic requirements.

Apparently, many educators ignore the reality that thousands of good jobs do not require four-year degrees. Some of these jobs, in fact, pay more than those requiring a bachelor's degree.

Fortunately, President Barack Obama grasps this reality and its long-term economic and security implications. He wants the nation's public schools to adopt a holistic approach to teaching and learning. He is urging educators to look anew at providing solid technical and vocational training, and he is encouraging all citizens to get at least one year of training or community college experience after high school.

The bottom line is that students not needing a four-year degree for their careers should have other pathways to succeed.

Obsession with college exacts a toll 02/18/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 7:12pm]

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