The importance of obtaining a college degree is an idea our society accepts almost without question. But a recent article titled “College Isn’t for Everyone. Let’s Stop Pretending It Is,” lays out in stark terms why we must begin creating multiple avenues to adult success. In a struggling economy — one that is steadily devaluing the labor of people with college degrees — the job prospects for individuals who are unwilling or unable to obtain one are even bleaker.
As the middle class continues to be squeezed by global economic pressures, we have failed to prepare today’s youth for a rapidly evolving workforce. Instead, we have double-downed on an irrational policy of shuttling students through failing school systems, encouraging them to take on massive amounts of debt for a college education they likely won’t complete and consigning them to low-wage, dead-end jobs as a result of “their” inability to surmount the nearly insurmountable challenges we set before them.
But acknowledging that not every student should pursue a college degree doesn’t mean that we should simply track them into low-wage vocations. Rather, according to author Michael J. Petrilli, “ … we should build a system that helps many students find another road to the middle class — a path that starts with a better prekindergarten-through-eighth-grade education and then develops strong technical and interpersonal skills in high school and at community colleges. This is an honorable path, and one that’s much sturdier than the rickety bridges to failure that we’ve got now.”
A study titled “Pathways To Prosperity,” published in 2011 by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, takes an in-depth look at the present and future American labor market and outlines a comprehensive plan to change the way we prepare young people for adulthood. We must begin to posit viable alternatives that would have an immediate impact on the lives of the nearly six out of 10 Americans who never receive an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
These alternatives include offering different education opportunities for at-risk students, elevating the importance of relevant work experience and reinforcing the connection between work and learning, among many others. Successfully upending our current system will require a large investment from our entire society, as well as strong partnerships between federal and state governments, school districts, private employers and America’s youth.
There will always be those among us who value college as an opportunity for learning and personal growth, as President Obama discovered after his poorly received joke about the market value of an art history degree. But the opportunity to join the ranks of the middle class shouldn’t rest solely on the fraught choice of attending and completing college, especially when so many students aren’t graduating from high school with the skills they need to be successful.
While it will take a radical rethinking of some of our most treasured tropes, at this critical juncture, we must have a frank conversation with our young people. Our future depends on more than offering them false choices and empty promises.