In a report issued on February 2nd, Harvard researchers question the value of ‘college for all.’
According to the co-authors of the report, Academic Dean Robert Schwartz and Ronald Ferguson, a Senior Lecturer at Harvard, the US’s four-year colleges are failing students by focusing too much on classroom-based academics and not adequately preparing students for careers. The proposal has sparked immediately concern from educators as it raises the ‘specter of tracking,’ in which students (often from lower-income or disadvantaged backgrounds) are ‘channeled unquestioningly into watered-down programs that curtail their prospects,’ according to EdWeek.
Currently, 42 percent of 27-year-olds in the US have no more than a high school degree. Only 30 percent of Americans earn a bachelor’s degree by the time they are 27. President Obama has stated that he wants to improve the nation’s college graduation rate to 60 percent in 10 years (ABC News). The US now ranks in 12th place in the world for college graduates, In comparison Canada’s college graduation rate is 55.8 percent; in South Korea and Russia, the rate for college graduates is 55.5 percent, according to statistics from the College Board.
A Call to Revamp the American Educational System
The Pathways to Prosperity project at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education are calling for an education system that would
- clearly delineate students’ career options as early as when they are in middle school
- define the coursework and training required, so that students in high school (and even younger, starting in middle school) can ‘chart an informed course toward work, whether as an electrician or a college professor.’
Pathways to Prosperity Director William Symonds argues that the current US system is ‘outdated’ and uses a ‘one size fits all’ model whose goal is for students to earn bachelor’s degrees, but without sufficiently preparing them for employment after they have graduated. Notes EdWeek:
Rather than derailing some students from higher learning, their system would actually open more of those pathways, they say, by offering sound college preparation and rigorous career-focused, real-world learning, and by defining clear routes from secondary school into certificate or college programs.
The authors underscore that the study is not seeking to dissuade young adults from earning college or advanced degrees. As an article about the new study on the website of the Harvard Graduate School of Education states:
As the labor market changes in the 21st century, the number of jobs open to young adults with only high school degrees is shrinking. In the future, most young adults will need post-secondary education in order to find good-paying jobs. However, millions of so-called “middle skill jobs” will require something less than a bachelor’s degree. “This suggests we need to change the way we think about education,” Symonds says. “College for All should not mean a B.A. for All.”
Instead Symonds stressed the importance of building a high-quality American education system that values alternatives to earning a bachelor’s degree, such as earning an associate’s degree or attending a certificate program after high school.
At an event to discuss the report this past Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged educators and policymakers to ‘embrace a vision of career and technical education that prepares students simultaneously for college and good-paying jobs by imparting the blend of academic and workplace skills needed in both,’ EdWeek reports.
Concerns About Tracking
Many educational advocates have responded by raising deep concerns about the report and fears that students—especially those from lower-income households—might be ‘tracked’:
“They’re arguing for different standards and separate tracks,” said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that focuses on policies to improve education for low-income students. “Every single time we create multiple tracks, we always send disproportionate numbers of poor kids and kids of color down the lesser one. Until we can find a way not to do that, then people like me will object.”
One of the co-authors of the Harvard study, Robert B. Schwartz, is a ‘prominent champion of higher academic expectations for all students.’ He has said that has has begun ‘to doubt the wisdom of a “college for all” approach to education.’ Co-author Ronald Ferguson is the director of Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative, and, EdWeek notes, a ‘national expert on improving learning opportunities for disadvantaged children.’
In response to such concerns about tracking, the authors contend that their vision would actually increase opportunities for all students, especially those whose education stops at high school. By taking the focus of post-secondary education off earning a college degree—and having to fulfill certain curriculum requirements in areas that may well have little to do with a student’s future career prospects—their system would be much more focused on ‘real-world learning’ in the form of internships and apprenticeships and offer a clear route from secondary school into certificate or college programs.
“Every high school graduate should find viable ways of pursuing both a career and a meaningful postsecondary degree or credential,” the report says. “For too many of our youth, we have treated preparing for college versus preparing for a career as mutually exclusive options.”
The authors of the report are, they say. hardly against higher education for all. Rather, they argue that a high-quality American education system needs still to be created; such a system would offer alternatives such as an associate’s degree or completion of a certificate for a profession or trade.
What is the goal of getting a college degree in the US?
In 1973, the study notes, seven in ten jobs in the US were held by those without only a high school education. In 2007, this figure changed to four in ten jobs. Half the jobs created in the next decade will be jobs calling for the kind of training one receives from earning an associate’s degree or vocational or technical training, such as a dental hygienist or construction manager. The study notes that many of these jobs are held by workers with no more than a high-school diploma and that some pay more than jobs that graduates of four-year colleges hold.
The Harvard report raises important questions for four-year colleges to consider in regard to their curricula and degree and program offerings. It also questions the value of the idea of a ‘liberal arts education,’ in which students take courses in a broad swath of subjects, in the belief that learning about poetry and philosophy will help to create a ‘well-rounded’ individual.
Should the purpose of a college education be just to get a job?
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