Tag Archives: college for all

Five-year high schools might defray college costs

We were temp-parents of two traveling German 20-somethings last week, and it gave me a chance to pump them for information on their high school/college systems– as well as show off the city I love.  I don’t know the details of the German education model in depth, but I’ve always thought, on the surface, it makes more sense than our system. Vanessa and Johannes–both on their way to university this fall– gave me a CliffsNotes version. That’s why the headline this morning that Maine is dipping its toe in the water of a five-year high school plan caught my eye.

The idea behind Maine’s program, which is still in the taskforce stage, is that high school students could take introductory-level college courses (both four-year college and two-year technical courses)  “so that in five years of high school, they could graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree, or two years of transferable college credits, all for free,” reports the Bangor Daily News .

Now that makes sense. Encouragingly, they’re not ignoring vocational coursework in the planning process. The Times’ David Leonhardt may keep hammering on the point that four-college still pays (“The next time you hear naysayers poormouth college,” he reports, “ask them if they plan to send their own children”), but the reality remains: nearly half of all freshmen in four-colleges do not make it to graduation, and the only reason the payback from college is rising (for now) is because the bottom has dropped out. The wages of those with a BA have been flat since 2002 while the wages of those with only a high school degree are falling like the bottom tearing out of a grocery bag. What Leonhardt skims over in his argument is that the college premium, as it is called, is based largely on comparing the wages of four-year college grads with those with just a high school degree. It doesn’t typically factor in the wages of those with some college or a two-year degree, like in this chart. (And notice how flat the premium since 2002.)

We tend to believe that if we just funnel more kids into four-year college we’ll solve the problem of a declining middle class and a threatened standard of living, ignoring the other option: raising the wages of those with less education. But we’re hanging our hat on an assumption that is in many ways, wishful thinking. The number of available jobs depends not on the number of qualified candidates, but on the size and growth of the economy. The economy grows when consumers demand more things, not when we pass education reforms that encourage more kids to go to college.

There is no shortage of four-year college graduates.  If that were the case, employers would have gobbled up these underemployed (and underpaid) college graduates slinging drinks or working retail, at regular rates of pay. So the question is, how long before the surplus of college grads drags down their wages along with others?  As Econ 101 says, if there’s a surplus, wages for college grads will decline. Since 2002, their wages have been flat, so it won’t take much to push them into negative numbers.

We need, in other words, to talk about this differently. I’m not saying people shouldn’t go to college. I’m just saying that “college” needs to be expanded in these discussions to include viable two-year or even shorter technical/vocational programs. The “college for all” mantra is Wobegonian.  AND, we need to work on wages overall.

The Maine policymakers realize this it looks like.  As one taskforce member told the Bangor paper,  “We have to do more training that is tailored to the jobs that are out there and not just college or two-year degree programs.” Indeed, many needed skills for good-paying jobs can be obtained in a yearlong training program that could flow from a high school diploma, possibly at the same school building.

As one taskforce member put it, “He’s absolutely right and we have to look at that. I just paid $75 an hour to have my lawn tractor fixed. Maybe I am in the wrong line of work.”

Vannessa and Johannes would recognize this five-year high school model. In Germany, youth are slotted by around 4th grade into university tracks, vocational tracks, or a “bottom rung” track.

Before we go all ballistic about tracking, I’m not urging that. But there must be a way to connect kids early to hands-on learning that they engage with and enjoy rather than operating under the delusion that everyone is four-year college material.

In Germany, those with solid skills but less aptitude for “book learning” are required to do 10 years in school and then make a decision: continue on the university track for two more years or bail out and head over to two more years of vocational training. The key here is that the system makes this option visible early in life and there is little stigma to the choice. The kids do split off into separate buildings after tenth grade, which doesn’t make for much mixing between the groups and probably calcifies the class system, but we can work on that. (And even Germany is considering pooling everyone in the same building in the near future.)

Maine is on the right track, along with a similar effort in North Carolina. They are giving their kids more options earlier in life while trimming back the costs of college for those who attend. More innovations like these are needed rather than such a focus on prepping everyone to enroll in college. The door to college should never be shut for those who want to attend. But for those who do not, we need better options.  Let’s face it. We already track in this country: we have the college track and the track right into the State Penitentiary. How’s that working for us?

A brilliant video by Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs–and a nice complement to the prior post

Arjun, a regular reader, pointed out this great video on the value of skilled labor (jobs that don’t require a 4-year degree). Worth a view! Great toilet story.

Great article on whether college is right for everyone

Karina Grudnikov hits the nail on the head with this articleon whether college is for everyone. In “College: The Only Path to Success?” she talks with several young adults who have taken alternative paths to jobs, and raises some important questions we all must ponder.

Karina interviewed me for the article and managed to turn my ramblings into a fantastic piece. She’s clearly a pro.

Here’s the beginning. I urge you to click through and read.

After graduating from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, Texas, Olivia Kaufman followed the same track as thousands of others: She went right to college, despite doubting her sense that it wasn’t the right place for her. In 2006, she enrolled in St. John’s University at Queens, NY.  A year later, she dropped out.

“I went there and didn’t do well,” says Kaufman. “I’ve never been good at sitting down and doing homework.”

Kaufman, 23, returned to her parents’ home in Texas, where she enrolled in the University of Houston, in the hope that living with her parents would force her to focus on her studies. It didn’t. She left college again, only to attempt it one last time at a community college.  But there, the classes were too easy and Kaufman found herself gaining credits but little knowledge. She finally called it quits on school after three years at three different universities.

Like many who leave college, Kaufman worked a variety of jobs as she attempted to find her true calling. She first went into the Navy, from which she was shortly discharged due to medical reasons, and then worked at Starbucks. “I started to wonder what I was going to do with my life,” Kaufman said, “and if I’d spend my whole life being a barista, making $7.80 an hour.”  One day, her mother asked if she had ever considered becoming an emergency medical technician, or EMT.  Kaufman had been a lifeguard for several summers, and her mother knew she loved helping people. “I didn’t even think that would be an option without a college degree,” said Kaufman. But, as it turned out, there was a certificate program at Houston Community College where she could get her basic EMT certification. She enrolled in January 2010….

The beginnings of a DIY education movement?

Do I detect a movement underfoot? A lovely young woman named Weezie called me up–ok, skyped me (I’m verbing!)– a couple days ago to talk about alternative paths to college. As loyal readers know, I’ve been on that tear for awhile, asking why alternative paths for young people beyond four-year colleges are not more apparent. My focus has been on the large group of young people who are not the brainiacs or the kids like Weezie who have been cultivated from early on to succeed. Instead, I often focus my ramblings on the average kids, those with no burning desire to spend four more years in school.

But then Weezie called, and it made me think, hmm, maybe this argument should be expanded. After all, even the “wow” kids question how they fit, where they want to go, and how to get there.

Weezie started college in a small liberal arts school in California after a childhood of travel, exploration, and parents who, as far as I can gather, urged her (and created the opportunities for her) to think for herself and beyond herself.

When she got to college, it felt, she said, like they were babying her, that the campus was too insular–too many privileged kids roaming around in a solipsistic bubble. (I’m putting words in her mouth here, but I think she would agree.) She wanted more, but she didn’t know what that more was yet. So in a gutsy move in this world of “go to college or be prepared to fail miserably,” she resigned her library privileges and took a semester off to “figure it out.”

For Weezie, the power of people’s stories is what inspires her, so hoping to find a path through the trials and tribulations, victories and defeats of others, she began interviewing. Her site Eduventurist.org is a clearinghouse for those stories.  I feel like a total underachieving slouch reading these stories, I must say.

What struck me in a recent blog post about an amazing young man in Malawi who, unable to afford school, taught himself by renting books and ultimately built a windmill (without a how-to guide!) , was this gem:

If the system of education doesn’t work for you, or simply is not a possibility due to your circumstances, your education does not have to stop there. I think that sometimes we associate the words “schooling” and “education” as being the same things. We are always learning and getting an education, but we should be bringing that same drive and commitment to learning outside of a formal academic setting.

And with that, it struck me: Will this generation be the first to question the mad credentialing race, where a journalist now needs an MA to do a job that was once learned on the job; where an editor needs an English major from Brown; where a pipefitter needs a two-year degree from a tech school? One wonders how on earth we learned to do jobs before the “college for all” race was on??

Are young people stepping back from that arm’s race to get those ever-better, ever-more-elite degrees? This generation is leading a turn away from crass consumerisms to a do-it-yourself ethos, of brewing your own beer to butchering your own hog (gruesome fyi). They are flocking to Makers Faires to see the creations of tinkerers. They are embracing a smaller footprint and a less consumer-centric culture. AND, they have new tools.

At their fingertips are endless possibilities to learn, for free. Peer-to-peer university, for example, is up and running online, where groups self-assemble and design a curriculum on a topic they want to learn about. Essentially, it’s crowdsourcing a university.

When I sat in on a panel at the recent Digital Media and Learning conference, P2P folks explained that they rely on an open-source ethos to spark a grass-roots education movement. “You just show up and do it,” the panelist said. There’s no back room people organizing or monitoring. There’s no organization. It’s all “you.” 1200 people have since signed up for courses, from how to program Flash to the psychology of math.

I hope the little rumble of a “formal” education backlash will take shape and turn into a roar. We need to return to some kind of sanity about higher education. The question is, will the establishment recognize alternative forms of learning? My parents regularly pulled me out of classes when I was a kid to travel, believing that I could learn far more seeing the world than I could in a classroom. When did that thinking stop? Just askin’.

Is college still worth it? A great round-up of the latest thinking

I’m off for what back in the day was called “spring clean-up” (aka spring break) here in Chicago.  Rex, my lazy-union-teacher husband, and I are unplugging and driving the California coast from LA to San Francisco, where we’re meeting a dear friend for drinks and a new friend and colleague for a “foodie” dinner one week from tonight.

In the meantime, take a look at this great blog that offers many smart answers to the question, “Is college still worth it?” Faithful readers know my take by now. I don’t think a four-year college is for everyone, and I think we have to do a better job of making more pragmatic alternatives visible for kids earlier. I’m not alone, as the blog makes clear, and as a recent report by Harvard [pdf] of all places also argues. (I blogged about the report here.)

In addition, my cousin sent me this article about community colleges in West Virginia that are doing just that. That’s hopeful, and I’m hearing the rumblings of this kind of thing elsewhere.

So, check out the Economix blog, where some of the leading experts on college and its value have their say.

Back in a week….with a tan.

The betrayal of higher ed?

I’m back from four fantastic days with 20-somethings in Philadelphia, including freezing my tusch in line for an audition for MTV’s Real World, hanging with the waitresses at Winberie’s, a long talk with parents, a “guy” shopping trip (grab pants, pay for them, leave), Philly cheese steak, Rita’s water ice, and countless hours talking with Kelly (pseudonym) and David (pseudonym) about their lives, their struggles, and their futures. It was priceless. And I thank them.

I was shadowing Kelly and David for research on our new book, about how the recession is affecting this latest generation to enter to workforce. I came away from it alarmed, afraid, sometimes hopeful, and more often than not, flashing back to my own early 20s—-the confusion, the excitement, the despair, the exhilaration. I also came away from it increasingly alarmed at the betrayal of our higher education system. Just let me go on record here as saying I think we’re staring at a new bubble, and it’s called the student loan bubble.

David’s story may not be typical, but it’s telling on many levels. David lives in a working class, borderline middle-class, neighborhood of Philadelphia. He grew up in a modest two-story home next door to his grandparents, who passed away a few years ago. His aunt lives down the street. He still hangs out with his high school friends, all of whom still live at home.

David is the kid on the football team who sits on the bench and who knows a lot of arcane trivia. He’s a huge movie buff, with a floor-to-ceiling bookcase of dvds in his childhood bedroom–a dark cave of wood paneling, piles of clothes, and clutter. His mom would love nothing more than to brighten up the room, but “David doesn’t like change.”

Overweight, nails bitten to the quick, he’s struggling to find his fit, at once sure of himself and yet wondering why he doesn’t get the call-back from the job interview when some of his other friends landed a desk job. He’s a “sucker for love,” as he puts it, a romantic who suffers from bouts of depression when things get overwhelming. He wants nothing more than to get on with life, find a 9 to 5 job and move out, get married and have a “baseball team” of kids, and the “white picket fence with the tire swing.”

Yet David isn’t moving out any time soon. He has $100,000 in college debt and two part-time jobs at minimum wage. He will soon owe $1,000 a month on those loans by his estimation. He earns about that much each month he told me over coffee at Starbucks the second morning. He also told me he is pinning his hopes on a bank teller position—one of the 200 jobs he’d applied for since graduation. The job would pay about $25,000 a year, which would allow him to start paying back the student loan and maybe move out.

David was an average kid in high school. He actually hated the whole affair and just phoned it in, doing the bare minimum to not flunk out. He wasn’t in any extra curriculars, and he didn’t talk to a guidance counselor but probably twice. He watched a lot of movies and stayed out of the way of his younger brother, who was rapidly becoming a serious juvenile delinquent.

And yet, he knew he’d go to college. “Every job you think of, you need a college degree,” he said. He’d originally wanted to go to a community college to get his grades up, but his dad, a laborer who removes asbestos in refineries, wanted him to go directly to a four-year school–the American Dream. David gathered the pamphlets he’d collected at a college fair and chose two that he thought he could get into with his low grades and that were far from home. He ultimately chose a private school in upstate New York–for $24,000 a year in tuition and $13,000 a year in room and board, with no financial aid, no scholarships, nothing. He chose the bank for his student loan based on the brochure the college handed out.

Four years later, he graduated with a BA in sports management in a town that is home to Wharton Business school, one of the best b-schools in the nation. He currently delivers pizzas for Domino’s for $7.25 an hour when he’s in the store and $5.25 when he’s delivering. He gets to keep part of the delivery charge and tips, but he pays for his own gas. If he works until 4a.m., he can clear $60-70 in tips in a night. He works three nights a week. His second part-time job is a check-out cashier at Kohl’s, scrambling to get 10 emails and 3 credit card applications every day for $7.50 an hour.

The debt weighs on him. He’s hoping for another six-month grace period where he will only pay on the interest in order to just save up a little bit more money. Then he hopes to consolidate and extend the loan out a few more years so the payments will be cut in half at least.  “Something like that,” he said.

We argued in Not Quite Adults that college pays, and it does–if you’re strategic about it, and if you graduate. Two big “ifs.” Studies like those we cite in the book calculate returns to education based on medians or averages. The median wage after college, the average cost of college, and so forth. That’s of course necessary and certainly an accurate portrayal of the typical kid, or the typical return. But the average can gloss over, ironically, the average kid’s story—stories like David’s, stories that are increasingly becoming the norm.

The question I have is why did David think college was the only route? In part, the promise of college is the American Dream for working-class parents like David’s. David’s dad, a second-generation laborer, did not want his son to follow in his footsteps. He had bigger dreams.”College” was where that dream took form. Yet, the ins and outs of college were a blur. As his mom said, “we were naive. We just sighed a big sigh of relief when he got in. But we’ve wised up now.”

Middle-class high schools like David’s are complicit in this dream. The weekly school newspaper proudly prints the future plans of all its seniors, and stresses that the majority are college-bound. Granted, the high school offered “third-tier” students options like voc-tech, but it came with a whiff of loser. As David said, “the voc-tech kids  were the kids who don’t do very well and this gives them something to do, some security in life.” Ironically, while standing in line for the MTV audition with Kim later in the week, she said when asked how many of her friends had jobs, “actually the only kids who have a decent job are the kids who went to trade school or cosmetology school.”

David came out of high school assuming that a paralegal needed a law degree and a x-ray tech needed a medical degree. Granted, he didn’t make very good use of his guidance counselor who probably would have disabused him of that notion, but his sense of things shows just how deeply ingrained this “college for all” mantra really is.

Colleges are complicit as well. They take in students like David without any compunction. They don’t have to worry about whether he graduates or not, or even whether he can afford it, because the spotlight is not on their graduation rates, only their enrollment rates.

So in the meantime, David lives at home, saddled with debt, and basically, as his mom put it, is just shoveling snow in a snowstorm. His parents, no stranger to financial strain, say they are happy to have him home. “We don’t mind doing this until he can get on his feet. We raised him to be independent, but it’s just not possible yet. I worry for him with that debt. That’s the mortgage on a fixer-upper around here. How can he move out with that?”

Indeed. As we sat talking, David flipped through the mail. A letter from the bank where he’d applied for the teller position was in the batch. He didn’t need to open it. He already knew. Rejected again.

Financial incentives help community college students stay in school

A new report finds that paying students to keep their grades up and stay in community college has the biggest effects among four different approaches. My mother would be appalled. I couldn’t even convince her to give me an allowance let alone pay me for good grades. But, after reading this report, I came away convinced.

Community colleges are the workhorse of the country’s higher education system. They are both a bridge into a four-year college and path into the workforce for millions. Yet far too many community college students never make it to graduation. Two-thirds drop out. That is a huge problem in today’s world.

According to the Center for Education and the Workforce, by 2018, the U.S. economy will create 22 million  jobs for workers with at least some education after high school. But if we don’t produce more college grads faster, 3 million jobs will go wanting. That is, we will be 3 million workers short of filling this capacity if we can’t steer the ship back on course.

That is one reason why MDRC, a nonprofit research group working to improve social policy, launched “Opening Doors” in 2003. The effort designed and test-drove several interventions to boost graduation rates at the nation’s community colleges. Seven years later, they have tallied the results of the varied experiments and summarized them in “Opening Doors to Student Success,” a wonderfully concise and cogent synthesis of the short- and long-term results.

But first, the demand: According to the Center’s recent report, “Help Wanted,” by 2018, nearly two-thirds of all jobs (both new and replacement jobs for those retiring) will require at least some college. By “some college,” they mean at least a certificate or an associate’s degree. The other one-third of jobs will require a high school degree.

This demand for more education is not new, of course. We have been on this escalator for some time now. Indeed, since 1973, according to the Center, “the American job machine nearly quadrupled the number of jobs available to people with at least some form of education beyond high school.” Much of this shift was spurred by the decline of manufacturing and the rise of the “knowledge” economy. The iPad is a good illustration of this shift. Today, the iPad is manufactured overseas, taking with it the blue collar jobs that required only a high school degree. But its marketing, design, financing, and dissemination happen here. And all those jobs require more education.

Yet, as MDRC notes in its brief, roughly two-thirds of students entering community college drop out, and at the four-year level, upwards of 40% fail to graduate in six years. We chronicled the same trend in Not Quite Adults. Far too many young people have no clear path through college, they lack good advice on what to take and how to navigate the college landscape, and they have only half-baked notions of what lays ahead as far as jobs go. As a result, they switch majors, take a smattering of coursework, and eventually wander right out the door.

On the community college end of things, too often young people are ill-prepared for college and get stuck in that “remedial” purgatory of “catch-up” courses for no credit.  Or, they are attempting to make up for past mistakes and are returning to school. But now they have other demands as well, including a job and kids. We need to do better if we are to increase the numbers of young people who are equipped to step into the jobs of the future.

MDRC took a first step in that quest with Opening Doors. The project helped community colleges design different interventions to keep young people in school: financial incentives, reforms in instructional practices, and two different forms of enhanced student services.

MDRC then evaluated the results using random assignment, and compared students in a control group with those who  received the services. This is one of the surest ways to test the effectiveness of a program.

The results show that financial incentives worked the best of the four. In this case, students were given $1,000 a semester to use in any way they wanted if they kept their GPA at the “C” level and enrolled at least half-time. The program ran for two semesters only. The stipend was in addition to any Pell Grants or other financial aid.

It worked. Students–who were all low-income– earned better grades, took more credits, and were more likely to attend full-time than students in the control group. Notably, the positive effects lasted for several more semesters after the stipend ended.

Instructional reforms had less effect than the stipends, and the effects didn’t last as long. The reforms focused on creating a “learning community” for vulnerable students. They took coordinated courses as a group and were offered enhanced counseling and tutoring, as well as a voucher for text books.

While they initially passed more courses, earned more credits, felt more connected to school, and moved through the remedial classes faster than those in the control group, the program didn’t help them stay in school in the long run.

Student services was the third type of intervention. Its intent was to provide more personalized and intensive assistance to prevent students from wandering off course or to help them overcome the inevitable hurdles that spring up in everyday life and interfere with school.

In one case, the students met twice a semester with a counselor, whose student load was reduced to be able to focus more energy on the students. Most of the students in this program were juggling family and jobs on the side. The enhanced counseling again had some early effects, but they tended to fade with time.

The MDRC brief ends on an encouraging note. All the programs tested, they note, had some positive effects on students. They were short-term interventions that targeted students facing the most substantial hurdles, and they had short-term positive effects. It makes one wonder if the services were scaled up and given serious resources how much long-term good they could do.

The most interesting result–and long-lasting–is that financial incentives work, probably no surprise to economists, who regularly argue–and prove– that money matters.

As Rachel Glennerster and Michael Kremer write in their post “Small Changes, Big Results,” the Mexican government in 1997 instituted a “conditional cash transfer” program, which paid poor families if they kept their children in school. “Enrollment of girls in secondary school increased by 14.8 percentage points. Similar programs have been rigorously evaluated in many countries around the world, and school enrollment has risen in every case.”

Or maybe it’s the “nudge” that makes it all just a little easier, not to mention more motivating, to stay on course. As the Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein, both behavioral economists and the authors of the popular book, “Nudge,” put it on their blog: “Financial incentives have a behavioral element to them…The basic point is that the context around the incentive (its size, when it’s delivered, how salient it is made) are all critical to its effectiveness.”

Whatever the incentive or support, it appears from MDRC’s findings that well-designed, intensive programs to help young people stay on course in school can and do work. Unfortunately in these cash-strapped times, it’s likely  that these services will be the first cut. That’s disappointing, and short-sighted, given the uphill road we face in meeting the demands of the future workforce.

A “calorie counter” for college investments—-a new report calls for more explicit information on the costs and outcomes of college

I’m reading transcripts of interviews we’re doing for the next book on how the recession is affecting young adults, and if one trend stands out, it’s how confusing and muddled the “what should I major in?” decision truly is. Many teenagers are picking majors because that’s what they were “good in” in high school, with little regard for what the job market might hold (that’s you English majors!). Once in college, they realize, gads, “this isn’t at all what I thought” and  they start casting about for something else. In a case of the blind leading the blind, they talk to their friends or see that their roommate loves art history, and think, “What the heck. That sounds like a good idea.”

If they make it–and that’s a big if–they graduate with about $22,000 in debt (on average) and no idea what to do with that degree in art history. If they don’t make it, they are in an even worse pickle: they have debt but no degree.

So I was heartened to read a new report by the Center for American Progress that offers suggestions for how this fraught process might be improved. The report, “Buying College,” by Julie Margetta Morgan, calls for more college accountability and tools to help parents and young adults figure out what college is the best fit for them. Baby steps.

Some of this information is available already on government web sites. But in its current form, it’s a morass of statistics and data and frankly, no one uses it. As the report notes, currently, such “information is available on the Internet if you’re inclined to look for it and if you can find it.”  I’m betting no one finds it–even though the risks to not knowing this kind of information are extremely high.  You can’t return a college degree after all once you’ve signed on to the debt. And with about 40% of all four-year college-goers dropping out before they’re finished, that’s a pretty harsh “buyer beware” policy.

Luckily, Morgan offers some excellent suggestions to fix this problem, starting with the basic questions a student should ask before enrolling at an institution, like:

  • Am I likely to finish this program?
  • What will it cost me?
  • Is that cost worth it given the likely outcomes of my degree?

The information [should] allow a student to understand the risks inherent in the college choice, found in places where students are likely to find it.

And this information should not be bogged down in all the technical minutia that seems to pervade any discussion of college enrollment and college debt. Sure, there are fine-grained differences that researchers obsess over in reporting, say, graduation rates. But parents in Ohio or Nevada don’t need that level of granularity. Just give the typical (median) or in some cases average scenario.

Morgan argues, for example, that information on costs and debt should include three things:

  1. Out-of-pocket cost of attending a particular institution—what the average student pays, net of all grant aid.
  2. The likely cumulative debt they will incur for a given educational program
  3. The monthly payment they can expect to pay off that debt over a 10-year period.

The final important question is, Is it worth it? We’re hearing many more cases in our interviews of kids really questioning the value of their education. They understand that they need a degree–that a BA or AA is the equivalent of a high school degree a couple of decades ago. They’re heard that message all their life.

But they are truly frustrated, especially with the current job picture. They are spinning their wheels, unable to land a job, even though they played by the rules and went to college. The English  or  art history majors are kicking themselves for not getting a business degree. The business majors are kicking themselves for not doing smarter internships. Many are living at home while they pay off their debt. Many are wondering whether they shouldn’t just go back to school for a master’s degree.

Of course, no one could have known that the economy would melt down just as they were finishing college, making their situation more precarious than ever. But even before the recession, far too many young adults were treading water, finding themselves underprepared or ill-prepared for the jobs that await them.

Surely there are other, non-job-related values to a college degree, like the expansion of your horizons, the critical thinking skills you acquire, the exposure to ideas and the canon that undergird our society. But with the cost of college creeping ever-upward and its “signal” to employers becoming watered down as more flock to college, the practicality of the degree takes precedence for many families and young adults. Therefore, as the report notes, any tool to help families make smart choices must have information on the value of that degree in the workforce.

Granted, this information is tricky with all the variables that come into play, but as the authors say:

Just like nutrition labels on food …, the information does not need to present the whole story of a college’s value to serve as a good indication of the risks inherent in consumption. Whether I know what a calorie really is, whether it’s a fair measure of the nutritional value of my food, I’ll still think twice about ordering at the Dunkin Donuts counter when I see a muffin has 600 calories in it. And that’s a good thing—even if I choose to order it anyway.

The paper nudges policymakers in the right direction. Now we have to figure out the specifics and find the political will to make it happen.

For now families can use the “College Navigator website.” Be warned, it’s technical and jargony.

New report on “Pathways to Prosperity” for young adults throws down the gauntlet for the “college for all” mantra

A new report on how we can better prepare our kids for the workforce and stop the costly churning in education is right up my alley. Experts at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education argue  in “Pathways to Prosperity” [pdf] that the “college for all” mantra might be misplaced and we should be doing a better job of helping kids seen alternative paths into the workforce earlier in life. Sound familiar? See chapter 2 of Not Quite Adults. Or here and here, and here.

As the blog at Higher Ed summarizes the report:

By concentrating too much on classroom-based academics with four-year college as a goal, the nation’s education system has failed vast numbers of students, who instead need solid preparation for careers requiring less than a bachelor’s degree.

Leaders of the “Pathways to Prosperity” project at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education argue for an education system that clearly articulates students’ career options as early as middle school and defines the coursework and training required, so young people can chart an informed course toward work, whether as an electrician or a college professor.

Agreed! Yet several people are up in arms about this, suggesting that this call for tracking–which it is–will relegate too many minority kids into dead-end careers and paths. I realize that’s been a long-time worry, but it seems that young minority men are already being tracked–right into prison. Yes, we’ve been doing such a stellar job making educating relevant to young lives that a young black male with just a high school degree has a better chance of ending up in prison than college.

Ah, but before you check out at the mention of urban minority kids, this report is not about those “other kids” whom we as a country (shamefully) rarely think about. This report is about all of our kids. Two startling truths about our current system are that about 60% of the workforce does not have a BA, and this may be the first generation to get less education than their parents. Recognizing the problem, the nation’s colleges are aiming for a graduation rate of 55%. As commendable (and sadly telling) as that is, the Harvard report points out: what about the other 45%? Indeed. I’d say the worry over tracking is akin to putting out a brush fire while Rome burns.

The problem, the Harvard report says, is that “We fail these young people not because we are indifferent [to their needs and goals], but because we have focused too exclusively on a few narrow pathways to success.” Instead, they argue, we should develop other models that help kids make a more direct connection to work, while in high school. They especially like the model of Finland and Denmark:

Finland and Denmark… keep all students in a common, untracked comprehensive school up through grade 9 or 10, at which point students and their families, not the school, decide which kind of upper secondary education they will pursue. We believe this model makes much more sense for the U.S. to consider, but it would mean that we would have to be willing to abandon our reliance on the various forms of tracking, subtle as well as overt, that pervade much of our education system through the elementary and middle school years.

They also like the German apprenticeship model (with some adjustments) that typically combines classroom and workplace learning that culminates in a diploma or certificate, a “qualification” that “holds real currency with employers.” Thanks to high standards, those who complete the programs leave high school with qualifications roughly equivalent to a technical degree from a community college–at no cost to them, mind you. The government and employers split the cost.  Employers are heavily invested in this training, aligning it carefully with their needs. As a result, employers know they’ll get a graduate ready to join the workforce–unlike many U.S. teens, whose opportunities for teen employment have eroded significantly over the last decade. No wonder American employers complain loudly that kids with just a high school degree lack the soft skills like being on time, integrity, and not standing slumped over a cash register with a look of utter boredom on their face.

The report offers many more great ideas for reforming our education system to better integrate careers, to bring “vocational training,” as it was once called, out of the basement, and to reform guidance systems. I like this suggestion especially:

In the U.S., our goal should be to assist every young
adult beginning at the end of middle school to develop an individualized pathway plan that would include career objectives; a program of study; degree and/or certificate objectives; and work-linked learning experiences. These pathway plans would be hardly be set in concrete, and young adults would not be forced into tracks. But the merits of this approach are obvious. Young adults simply can’t chart a course if they don’t have a goal.

We saw this inability to chart a course over and over in the young people we interviewed for “Not Quite Adults.” These were kids who couldn’t fathom four years of school, but were at a real loss for other alternatives. They ended up in $10 an hour jobs, dissatisfied and casting about for a lifeline, as they treaded water during one of the most important decades (the 20s) in their lives. If they’d had the lifeline of some concrete guidance that helped them see goals earlier in life, and the path to achieve those goals, I bet a lot of them would be much happier, and much more secure, than they are today.

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that the U.S. economy will produce 47 million job openings by the end of 2018. Almost two-thirds of these openings will require some college education. But not necessarily a four-year degree. They predict that nearly half of the jobs that demand higher education will only require an A.A. degree
or less. “And virtually all of these sub-B.A. jobs will require the kinds of real-world skills students master in career and technical education.”

We have to do better. The Harvard report offers some excellent suggestions for how to get there, including many of the same things I’ve noted here and in the pages of Not Quite Adults.

They also point out programs that are already doing many of the things they suggest–and doing them successfully. Programs in high schools like  Project Lead the Way, or Career Academies, or High Schools That Work, or Linked Learning Initiative in California, and the Florida state legislation that requires new career and technical education programs be developed that match real-world employer needs.

They also point to employer-based programs that are pretty amazing. Programs like U.S. First for future engineers, the Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship Program, the National Academy Foundation, and Year Up. Dick Bonnet wrote in from W. Virginia about Energy Corporation of America’s program called College Summit that helps send students to college to train to work in the oil and gas industry. Now let’s build on the existing programs and bring them to scale, nationally–and for a much broader range of kids.

17 million Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that don’t require a BA

“A college grad walks into a bar….”  Well, actually, the joke should probably start “A priest walks into a bar and is served a drink by a college grad….” After all, one in six bartenders has a college degree. Order some food, and you’ll probably be served by a college grad.

In his blog over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Vedder has done some tallying up of the Bureau of Labor Statistics data and finds this little nugget:

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.

Yep, you can be feel pretty good that you spent $25,000 to park that Hummer.

Of course, much of this is a result of the current recession, and some of it is the age-old result of just not being sure what you want to do with your life. But with the cost of college creeping ever upwards, and the numbers dropping out with a bill but no degree rising as well, it does raise the question: should everyone go to college?

We’ve been demanding a BA for some time now as an entree into the work world, largely because, if you ask me, it’s the lazy way of winnowing out applicants. A BA certainly doesn’t convey expertise in the subject matter, unless you’re a historian or opening a philosophy shoppe. (The exception of course is in the professional schools, like engineering, law, medicine). College was designed to teach young people how to think and how to ask good questions–as well as giving them four years to mature. (Those are important skills, don’t get me wrong. Critical thinking is absolutely king.) But over time a BA has become a commodity, in exchange for which you (hopefully) get a job. The message we tell kids is, “go to college if you want to get a good job.”

Kids have heard that message loud and clear. Most kids aspire to college. And many enroll. They do so on the wing and a prayer that if they finish, they’ll earn a lot more than would a person who goes to trade school.

And, if they’re average or above average, they’re right.  The return to college is, on average, quite large.  But there’s a distinction that is often overlooked in this assumption (myself included). The high returns we read about are average returns.  So on average a student with a BA earns much more over a lifetime than the typical person with just some college, or a certificate, or just a high school degree.

But within the folds of that typical story are stories like the bartender and janitor and the flight attendant. Perhaps the bartender wasn’t ready for college, or perhaps he just didn’t have the smarts to hack it. No shame in that. This isn’t Lake Wobegon after all where every child is above average. Yet, he went to college because he heard the message that it was the only way to earn a decent living and have a stable life (college as a commodity again). But that’s not always true. He might not be average. If he’s below average, his return might just be below average as well. He might not have a shot at the high-end job that his dorm-mate had–the straight A kid from an elite high school with well-off and highly educated parents. Instead, he might land in a middle management job. Still a decent job, but not the six-figure salary his roomie is making. And yet he doesn’t pay any less for that degree. Thus, his “return” is less.

Those are the realities of college today, and while it is true that college still pays, it is something that every parent should think about when helping to choose a college. It’s a tough call, because you don’t want to unnecessarily crimp your child’s future, and who knows, he or she may blossom in college. But if a young person has done ok but not spectacularly in high school, if she’s not that interested in Thucydides, maybe he or she could blossom just as easily at a less-expensive state school instead of a pricey private school. Or maybe he could find his happiness as a landscape designer, or a radiologist, or an EMT.

Young people today need to know the odds of their success in a four-year college. If they’re in the bottom ranks of their high school class, they need to be told they have only a 20% chance of getting a BA.  And more important–they need to have clear, viable other options. They’re out there. We just need to work harder to make those options apparent and the path to them swift and successful.

When asked in a recent Heartland Monitor Poll whether a four-year degree is a ticket to the middle class, only 46% of young people aged 18 to 29 with a BA or still in college said yes. That’s a serious crack in the dike on the education front.

We’ve been ignoring the story of those less sexy, but decent paying “middle tier” jobs. While some economists say that the workforce now looks like a barbell–with jobs concentrated at the high end, demanding a lot of cognitive skills, or the low end, with dismal pay and no job security. These economists argue then that we should be spurring kids on to four-year colleges to sharpen those cognitive skills, so they won’t end up at the other end, forever scrambling to just keep their head above water.

But Georgetown labor economist Harry Holzer and the Urban Institute’s Robert Lerman argue otherwise. In a recent Brookings Institution paper, “The Future of Middle-Skill Jobs,”  they use Bureau of Labor projections to determine where the jobs will be.

Overall, we conclude that the demand for middle-skill workers will remain quite robust relative to its supply, especially in key sectors of the economy. Accordingly, accommodating these demands will require increased U.S. investment in high-quality education and training in the middle as well as the top of the skill distribution

Indeed, of the 30 jobs projected to grow at the fastest rate in the next decade, only seven require a BA.

I’ve heard from too many young adults who struggle in college or who wonder why they are now fighting for a job as a cashier or a bartender (with a college debt hanging over their head) when they were promised better. And they were. We promised them that. So let’s change this message that college is for all, and let’s give kids real alternatives.