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‘College for All’ Is Broken. Let’s Embrace Opportunity Pluralism Instead.

Parents and young adults agree that more non-degree pathways to opportunity would be preferable to the current conveyor-belt-to-college model.
May 2, 2022
(Shutterstock)

The notion of “college for all”—typically part of a broader education model in which nearly all students move as if on a conveyor belt from elementary to high school to college and a degree and then, finally, to a career—continues to hold considerable sway in policy circles. Elected leaders annually spend billions of taxpayers’ dollars supporting this model, despite evidence that it’s disconnected from today’s world of education, training, and work.

You can see how detached the college-for-all model is from the reality of education and work in various ways. For example, since the early 1990s, data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—dubbed “the nation’s report card”—indicate that only around 40 percent of high school graduates are college-ready.

Moreover, enrollment in college is rising faster than completion, with little change since the 1950s in the percentage of enrollees attaining a bachelor’s degree by age 25. In fact, only about half of the students who enroll in college compete a degree within six years. For community colleges, that figure drops to a quarter.

Besides, finding a job that pays well doesn’t necessarily require a bachelor’s degree; according to one estimate, there are 65 million existing “good jobs” (defined as jobs that pay at least $35,000 for workers under 45 or $45,000 for workers 45 and older) in the United States that don’t require one. For individuals without a degree, there are “opportunity rich” employment options that can lift individuals into the middle class and provide them with worthwhile careers.

Thanks to degree inflation, four-year degrees are increasingly required for jobs that didn’t formerly require them even though those jobs’ skill requirements often haven’t changed. One analysis shows about 40 percent of recent college graduates are employed in good jobs that don’t require their college degree.

Finally, an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) analysis of 35 countries reports that most of them enroll between 35 and 55 percent of their upper secondary students in vocational education and training programs. The United States is excluded from the OECD study because it has “no distinct vocational path at [the] upper secondary level.”

Perceived Strengths, Perceived Weaknesses

To better understand American public opinion about the ends and value of higher education, we can turn to two national representative surveys conducted last November by American Compass and YouGov—the first of 1,000 parents with school-age or graduated children ages 12 to 30, the second of 1,000 young adults ages 18 to 30. The surveys revealed three areas of unexpected consensus between the parents and the young adults. (Full disclosure: The foundation at which I work provides funding to American Compass and I have written articles for the group’s website.)

First, both groups are uncertain about what higher education offers.

Participants reviewed a list of ten purported strengths of the American college and university system. When they were asked to select each one they considered a major strength of the system, neither group gave majority support to any of the options.

The highest number of parents agreed it is a major strength of American colleges and universities to be “hubs of scientific discovery and technological innovation” (40 percent), while the greatest share of young adults considered providing opportunities “to explore identities and discover authentic selves” (44 percent) a major strength.

The lowest-performing strength for parents was “colleges provide a safe environment for young adults to experience living away from home” (15 percent), while for young adults it was “college athletics create an essential feeling of pride and belonging for students and alumni” (20 percent).

Responses varied by partisan affiliation on some issues, with Democrats more likely than independents or Republicans to cite higher education’s strengths:

Second, both groups strongly agree on what they consider higher education’s most serious problem. When given a list of ten weaknesses, over 8 in 10 parents (83 percent) and 7 in 10 young adults (76 percent) said it’s “too expensive,” a response that remained consistent across political affiliations:

The next-highest responses on the weakness question trailed far behind: Around 4 in 10 parents and young adults chose either “[the] party scene and ‘hook-up’ culture create an unsafe environment” (42 percent and 35 percent) or “college graduates aren’t prepared for career success” (41 percent and 39 percent).

Third, both parents and young adults are dissatisfied with the options offered by the American K-12 and postsecondary systems.

More than 8 in 10 parents (85 percent) and 6 in 10 young adults (65 percent) “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that there should be “more educational options available,” with strong support for non-college career pathways after high school.

These options include one favored by nearly 6 in 10 parents (57 percent): pathway programs—for instance, a three-year apprenticeship after high school—leading to a “valuable credential and a well-paying job.” This preference is linked with the educational attainment of parents: Those with college degrees are more inclined to opt for a four-year college program for their child.

It may surprise education advocates that the two surveys found parents and young adults supporting a practice that many in the industry disapprove of: tracking within high schools. Because the term “tracking” has negative overtones, the survey used “tracking” when presenting the question to one half of respondents, and used a more neutral alternative, “diverse pathways,” for the other half.

The question gave respondents two high school models to choose between: one where schools “use [tracking/diverse pathways] to offer students different pathways based on their aptitudes and interests,” and a second where schools have “a goal of bringing all students along to the same end point, which is typically preparation for college.”

Tracking was overwhelmingly popular irrespective of terminology: Across the board, 86 percent of parents supported the tracking/diverse pathways model, and young adults were similarly supportive.

Calling for Change

The views that parents and young adults expressed in their responses to the American Compass surveys are consistent with other recent analyses.

In 2017, Strada Education Network and Gallup found that only about a third of college students strongly agreed that they’d graduate with the skills and knowledge they need to make it in the job market and the workplace. Just half strongly agreed their major would lead to a good job. Many indicated they would prefer to change at least one postsecondary decision they made: 36 percent would change their major, 28 percent their institution, and 12 percent their degree. Only 26 percent of respondents strongly agreed that their education was relevant to their career and day-to-day life.

Echelon Insights has found that millennials (now numbering over 72 million) are particularly disenchanted. Reflecting on their high school education, only 39 percent of millennials in a 2017 study felt they left high school prepared for success in college or postsecondary coursework.

Meanwhile, more than half of Americans believe higher education is headed in the wrong direction, according to a 2020 survey by the Massachusetts-based think tank Populace, while only one in five believe it’s headed in the right direction. The survey also found that 67 percent of Americans believe postsecondary institutions put their own institutional interests first. Only small minorities believe they put students (9 percent) or the greater good (4 percent) first.

An Alternative Pathways Approach

In response to the chorus calling for a change to the “college for all” model, civic entrepreneurs are creating innovative programs for career pathways in communities across the country.

These programs weave together education, employment, and careers, and they are designed to avoid the isolation of the current education system from employers and the demands of the labor market.

They include apprenticeships, internships, and career and technical education; dual enrollment in high school and postsecondary institutions; career academies; boot camps for acquiring specific knowledge or skills; staffing, placement, and other support services; and income-share arrangements wherein students begin to repay tuition only after acquiring a good-paying job.

While these programs assume many forms, they share several common features, as I explained in a Bulwark article last summer: (1) an academic curriculum linked with labor-market needs, and awarding a recognized credential that can lead to a decent income; (2) work exposure starting in high school with work placements and internships; (3) advisers to help participants make informed choices while also ensuring they complete the program; (4) a civic compact bringing together employers, trade associations, and community partners, usually via written agreements; and (5) supportive policies at the local, state, and even federal levels to make it all possible, especially in terms of funding.

While not meant to replace the “degree pathway” for everyone, these programs create specialized and skills-based pathways and credentials that are joined to employers and labor market demand. They package education and employment outcomes together. The goal is to ensure that every young person—regardless of background—has multiple pathways available to reach good jobs, satisfying careers, and, ultimately, a flourishing life. These programs build local infrastructure that helps young people develop two necessities for pursuing opportunity: knowledge and networks—both what students know and who they know. This goal is the basis for every new opportunity program.

The career pathways approach helps young people develop a vocational self, an important part of long-term job satisfaction. It also helps young people build the social capital—the networks—they need to prosper in life.

This opportunity agenda differs sharply from the old paradigm of vocational education, which assigned students to different tracks and future occupations primarily on the basis of family background. Racial, ethnic, and class biases deeply compromised that system: Immigrant students, low-income students, and students of color typically enrolled in low-level academic and vocational training, while middle- and upper-class white students enrolled in academic, college-preparatory classes.

There is no single magic fix for the problems that beset higher education in the United States. But if we want to start to remake it so that it at least better matches the needs and the desires of the American people, career pathways programs are a good place to start. They address the things parents and young adults most agree on when it comes to education: Both groups are critical of the overall performance of K-12 and postsecondary education, and both groups want educational options for young people that go beyond the tired formula of “college for all.” A plan that involves increasing opportunity, drawing on important civic connections, and seeking to promote both individual vocation and social connections is not only in keeping with the best American traditions, it’s also an approach that could win widespread support.

Bruno V. Manno

Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor to the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 Program.