The ‘Snob’ Debate: Making High School Matter For Non-College-Bound Students

Our guest author today is James R. Stone, professor and director of the National Research Center for Career & Technical Education at the University of Louisville.

The current debate about “college for all” centers on a recent speech made by President Obama in Troy, MI, in which he argued that all young people should get at least some post-high school education or training. Republican presidential primary candidate Rick Santorum, in a misreading of Obama’s remarks, responded with a focus on four-year degrees alone—suggesting, among other things, that four-year college degrees are overrated and that the president’s emphasis on college devalued working people without such degrees. The political chatter around this particular back-and-forth continues, but the issue of “college for all” has rightly raised some serious issues about the content and direction of U.S. education policy both at the high school and post-secondary levels.

Statistics seem to show that the college-educated  graduates of four-year institutions earn more money and experience less unemployment than their non-college-educated peers. This has fueled the argument is that college is the surest path—perhaps the only path—into the middle class. But the argument confuses correlation with causality. What if every U.S. citizen obtained a community college or university degree? Would that really do anything to alter wage rates at Starbucks, or increase salaries for home healthcare aides (an occupation projected to enjoy the highest demand over the next decade)? Of course not.

Among other factors, wages have been profoundly affected by a labor market transformed through digital technology. Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s Race Against the Machine argued that digital technology is increasingly displacing humans in the completion of sophisticated tasks. Although this phenomenon is not new, it is different than in the past. Where once it took 125 assembly workers to produce a Model T, it takes only 13 to produce the Ford Escape—this is old news. What’s new is RFID scanners and robots replacing grocery store clerks; armies of lawyers being replaced by software; a computer beating a human on the popular Jeopardy show.

Unions are another mediating factor; they have suffered tremendous losses over the past decades and private sector density is below 7 percent. This has had a major impact on working-class wages. As reported in a recent Forbes article, German auto workers earn an average of $67.14 per hour, whereas their U.S. counterparts average only $33.77. In non-union auto plants in Tennessee, workers start at $14.50. Non-union housekeepers earn $8 an hour, unionized housekeepers $22 an hour. In this context, the lack of a college degree is not a sufficient  explanation for the difference between a middle-class income and a near-poverty income. Skills differences are not the full explanation for wage differences. Although education and skills play a role, technology and labor market structures explain much more.

But lets’ assume that all youth should get some college education. The less than 75 percent of youth who successfully complete high school face three major challenges: First, higher education costs are increasing. Forty-one states are reported to be cutting higher education support. Florida, as recently reported in the New York Times, is planning to cut higher education funding by a draconian $250 million and to allow universities to raise tuition by 8 to 15 percent, putting higher education out of reach for many.

Second, the capacity of postsecondary education and training programs in high-demand fields, such as healthcare, is restricted by the limited number of internship and apprenticeship placements available to such programs. There is also a disconnect between popular programs and labor market opportunity. In the early 2000s, for example, demand for forensic science programs—spurred by the popularity of shows such as CSI—far outstripped program capacity and labor market demand. Community colleges too often respond to this rising student demand by expanding their programs, without respect to real labor market opportunities.

Third and finally, there is the challenge of student capability—that is, students’ ability to learn in a traditional college setting. Many students who do finish high school graduate without the academic skills needed to pass college placement tests. Such students are shunted into remedial courses, where many find themselves on a pathway to nowhere. Some community colleges have responded by trying to move lower-skilled students directly into occupational programs, but this remains a challenge, especially in an era of reduced resources.

So what should we do for the many young people who will never go to college? Why must they wait until after high school graduation—when individual and societal costs increase so dramatically—in order to prepare for a productive adulthood?

We must make high school matter for these youth.

Doing so requires rethinking how we organize learning opportunities to provide rigorous, world-class technical education to the many disengaged youth now suffering through ever-increasing academic requirements. The National Center on Education and the Economy’s Tough Choices, Tough Times argued for a 10th-grade board examination that would allow successful students to move directly into community college-level technical programs or to continue in a true college preparatory program to a second level of examinations. Implementing this intriguing model would require major systemic changes in public education.

For example, in Georgetown, KY, Toyota has worked with local education systems to create a compelling, rigorous and relevant manufacturing career pathway—one that takes students from high school to the local community college to four-year college programs in engineering or manufacturing management and the promise of employment with Toyota. This innovative program of intensive work-based learning (WBL) and rigorous academics is based in one of the most sophisticated manufacturing operations in the world.

In addition to models such as these, we can make high school matter by retooling existing Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs to reflect both anticipated labor market opportunities and the education that leads to them. Essential components of a retooled CTE system include intensive career development opportunities that begin no later than middle school; internships, apprenticeships, and other WBL that engage youth with the labor market; and curricula that integrate academic knowledge with technical skills, yielding recognized industry credentials.

- James R. Stone