‘College for All’ Campaign Getting a Second Look

After years of intense focus by American policy leaders and educators on college readiness, a growing chorus is calling for schools to better prepare students for futures that might not include four-year degrees.

A recent Harvard University report synthesized concerns that had long been simmering as the country’s dominant education push has been to raise academic standards and make more young people into successful college students. By pressing students onto a college path, some observers wonder, are we shortchanging students whose future plans might not include a baccalaureate degree? Can we create preparation options that truly open all doors for all students?

The “Pathways to Prosperity” study, released in February, argued that job-market realities and college-completion patterns demand that schools pay more attention to the large swath of students who graduate from high school but might not earn four-year college degrees. (“Harvard Report Questions Value of ‘College for All’,” February 2, 2011.)

Two thirds of the jobs created in the United States by 2018 will require some postsecondary education, but of those, nearly half will go to people with occupational certificates or associate degrees, according to data cited in the report. Many of those jobs carry decent wages, as well: One-quarter of those who hold such credentials earn more than the average bachelor’s-degree holder, the report says.

The study questioned whether the focus on college preparation is justified, noting that only 56 percent of students who enroll in four-year colleges earn a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s. What, then, becomes of the so-called “forgotten half” who don’t? Add to that the growing cost of college—student-loan debt, averaging $24,000 per student, now outpaces credit card debt—and more questions arise about presuming everyone should aim for college, some experts say.

Shifts in emphasis between career and college preparation have pushed and pulled American high schools for decades. Career focus was minimized as the vocational and trade schools of the 1940s gave way to comprehensive high schools. The 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” launched the modern education standards movement with its plea for stronger academic preparation. And, as new global economic realities impose demands on educational systems to prepare students in new ways, the question of career preparation on deeper, higher levels has reasserted itself, forcing educators to grapple with how best to ready students for whatever lies after high school.

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