Schools, Degrees, and Jobs

Three facts caught my eye in the past few days:

*In California, 260,000 college graduates under the age of 30 are working in low-paying jobs that have historically gone to high school graduates and dropouts such as food services, retail sales, and clerical work.

*In the past three years 35 to 60 college graduates have enrolled in Hostos Community College (Bronx, New York City) to train for careers in Information Technology (IT), nursing, and medical technicians.

*Pathways in Technology Early College High School–P-Tech for short–opened to 230 students in Brooklyn (NY) this year to prepare students for technical jobs. A six year program in cooperation with IBM and other companies will produce graduates with associate degrees prepared for entry-level jobs paying $40,000 like software specialists who answer questions from customers.

I know it may be a stretch but here is how I tie these facts together.

When high school students enter a six year technology program to earn associate degrees that will lead to middle-class jobs at places like IBM and when B.A. and B.S. graduates take low-paying service and retail industry jobs while other college grads return to community colleges to get training for medical and technical jobs, serious questions arise about the current mantra of everyone has to go to college.

How many U.S. high school graduates enter and stay in college anyway?

Consider that the percentage of U.S. students ages 18-24 enrolled in college had increased from 35 in 2000 to 41 in 2010. While rising in the past decade, nearly 60 percent were not enrolled. Consider also that in 2010, nearly 70 percent of those just graduating high school  immediately enrolled in college. But that percentage is misleading since most who enroll, drop out of college.

Surely, finances play a large part in student decisions to attend and persist in higher education until graduation. Average annual tuition in 2010 for public colleges and universities was just over $13,000 and for private higher education, $32,000. The figures, of course, do not factor in living costs. And just as surely, there are other reasons for not attending college including such thoughts that four more years of studying academic subjects is tedious work and no guarantee of high-paying jobs.

So are there alternative routes for secondary school students to take besides going directly into higher education? Yes, there is but it is hardly a glowing picture.

The slow demise of vocational education in the past three decades and gradual growth of career and technical education (CTE) and cooperative programs between area community colleges and high schools–see above–is a back-story that needs telling for two reasons. First, there is persuasive evidence that CTE is effective for youth from minority and poor backgrounds and those effects last well into young adulthood. Second, the truth that not all students want four more years of academic work after getting their diploma seldom merits mention by the current crop of school reformers.

On the matter of evidence, James Kemple has studied CTE exhaustively using “gold standard” designs and found that those students in Career Academies, especially males, who completed these programs earned more money than those who were in non-Academy programs. Moreover, larger percentages of Career Academy graduates were living independently with a partner or spouse and children than non-Academy graduates.

As for the simple truth that not all students are eager for continued academic work divorced from real-world work, such recognition of that truth would give ulcers to most top-level policymakers (and parents) committed to “college for everyone.”

Truth-telling would undermine the current and widely popular reforms of making all K-12 classes college preparatory. Truth-telling might sway policymakers (and parents) to consider alternative pathways that include CTE and joint programs with community colleges. Truth-telling might inform parents that millions of jobs created by 2018 will not require a four-year degree. Truth-telling might reveal that of all high schools in the U.S., for example, half do not offer any CTE to their students–yes, that is correct. No program at all. And that was in 2002 before the frenzy for “everyone goes to college” had ramped up. Only 5 percent of all high schools in the nation have full-time CTE.

So there is an important back-story to be told about the three facts that I listed above and there are alternatives for those students who seek practical and worthy career choices beyond spending four more years in academic studies and borrowing lots of money for a higher education.

But raising questions about whether all students should go to college especially when there are viable alternatives available to youth is, to say the least, not even near the top of reformers’ agenda today. It should be.



Filed under school reform policies

25 responses to “Schools, Degrees, and Jobs

  1. I wonder:

    Are there any other aspects of our life (besides our career) that make the college experience worthwhile; worthwhile enough that despite the fact it may not improve one’s career prospects at all it is still work attending?

    I have always thought that the purpose of college/university was not to prepare people for the workforce but to improve their thinking and to expose people to new ideas but does it achieve this aim?

  2. Ironically, many that advocate for social justice unwittingly ally themselves with forces that impede progress. Social justice advocates do so when they support the “one size fits all” approach implicit in a “College for All” mantra. This support obfuscates realistic approaches, such as the development of trade skills or other non-college-track offerings, rendering them unpalatable when they offer the greatest hope for a diverse student population. Worse, a generation of students, now adults numbering in the tens of millions, lay strewn across America deceived by the very system that promised them a path to success.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for commenting, Dave.

    • Bob Calder

      On the other hand, CTE academies sometimes provide questionable business certifications in skills that are outdated before children graduate which suggests that more careful examination needs to be done. The finance academy curriculum I taught provided good background knowledge that upper middle class children already possess. In that, it was no different from other cultural background. Was it CTE or remediating deprivation?

      • Yes, the additional pathways must not be relegated to an undesirable category with little oversight or rigor, or outsourced to companies more interested in profit than helping students learn. I view these as integral to public education, taught in public schools by certificated teachers, yet focusing on content more relevant to those seeking trade school entry after graduation, or on the job training.

      • larrycuban

        Just like monitoring quality of charter schools is essential, so too CTE academies.

  3. Pingback: Schools, Degrees, and Jobs | Education3.0 |

  4. Pingback: The Big Lie: College for All | Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher

  5. Pingback: Schools, Degrees, and Jobs | Educational News |

  6. As educators, we tend to parrot the latest trend that originates from state capitals…namely that all students will be college ready. The belief in the trend-line becomes part of our vernacular and any deviation from the trend is aligned with having low expectations for our kids. Therefore we all should embrace heterogeneous grouping, cooperative learning, learning styles, or whatever the latest trend is trending. In Texas, our governor has been pushing the College For All for some time. Truth be known, college has never been for all as was evident by the ample parking spaces available after the fall quarter at Louisiana Tech in 1978. We would be better serving our students by exposing more to CTE courses while in high school. I have my doctorate but I can also weld, solder a copper pipe, and fix a lawnmower engine thanks to what I learned in my Ag. classes in high school.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Rickey, for your comment on “college for all” and how Agriculture classes in high school gave you lifelong skills.

  7. Larry, you just pushed one of my passion buttons. Great post!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Carmen. Any suggestions for further reading on this topic?

      • I’d be interested in other sources as well. My district this year has a slogan “U Can Be College Bound”, which distresses some of us on a bunch of different levels. I’d love to have some resources for an intelligent counterpoint. Thanks for stoking that fire, Larry.

      • larrycuban

        Take a look at Robert Samuelson’s piece “It’s Time To Drop the College-for-All Crusade” in the Washington, Post, May 27, 2012

  8. BB

    Many high schoolers who are at least on grade level in math but uninterested in analyzing literature or tracing historical trends should be directed towards the skilled trades or IT technical occupations. We have created a system that tells kids they are losers if they don’t go to college, and they respond by resisting school.

  9. Several districts in California, including the one where I serve as a school board member, have adopted the Linked Learning approach as the central organizing strategy (see It seeks to balance rigorous academic content for all, with engaging pedagogical strategies, connected to career sector themes. .
    What is interesting is that many of the career pathways lead not to four year colleges, but through two year college CTE programs, yet, these programs are seen as a less promising outcome for high school students than four year college enrollment, and are rarely recommended by high school teachers or counselors, or college ready programs. I happen to think that one reason for this is that most public school educators only know education as their industry sector, not arts, media, entertainment, or advanced manufacturing, or construction, or biomanufacturing, or genomics, and we really don’t know where to go to find out more about emerging career opportunities, and how to contextualize our courses to help engage our students in finding out the academic skills needed to be qualified or eligible for emerging professions.

    I take seriously the importance of post secondary eligibility and readiness for all students, because a high school diploma by itself is not likely to be enough for our students to prepare for a career, At the same time, vocational education in high school is also not likely to be enough either, even if it were possible to restart those kinds of programs in our high schools. And I am not willing to track students into early courses of study that limit their ability to attend four year college, should they desire to as adults. Linked Learning seems to be one approach that tries to meet the academic standards required by four year colleges, without turning off many kids who just can’t find the relevance in the academic course work they are taking.

    I should note that I am now working with the Career Ladders Project in Oakland, and our recent grant seeks to connect up interesting work going on in community college CTE programs, with Linked Learning academies in high schools. My fingers are crossed!

  10. larrycuban

    I agree, Gary, that the Linked Learning initiatives in California and Pathway projects elsewhere are promising. They seek to open career doors for students that go beyond sitting in classrooms for four more years after earning a high school diploma. More than crossing fingers, we need policymakers to get behind such initiatives. Thanks for commenting.

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