The popular idea of college for all works if there are more pathways to get there.
In a recent opinion piece, "It's time to drop the college-for-all crusade," Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson argues that too many students are heading off to college unprepared and unable to do the work, too few are graduating, and degrees are being watered down to accommodate those who shouldn't be there in the first place.
In other words, suggests Samuelson, some students simply aren't college material. The college-for-all strategy is not working.
Many have jumped into this debate on both sides of the argument. Yet, Samuelson is both wrong and right at the same time.
Samuelson is right that the college-for-all strategy has missed the mark. Our education system is delivering a four-year college degree for — at most —30 percent of our students. Meanwhile, at the other end of the educational spectrum, nearly one-in-four Washington students aren't graduating from high school with their classmates.
Samuelson is wrong when he suggests that not everybody is college material. Not only is post high school education essential for every person to be economically successful; it is entirely within the reach of essentially every student.
Every person is capable of mastering educational subjects they have a passion and an interest in, if taught in a way that best allows them to learn.
The problem with the college-for-all strategy is not that students can’t learn; it’s that this single approach, this single pathway, does not create the opportunities for students to explore their interests and connect to their passion for learning.
The Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board proposes a multiple pathway strategy for guiding the state’s training and education system. The goal is to make it possible for every Washington resident to find a pathway that leads to economic success. This means offering more than a strict academic approach to college and thinking more broadly about how that college education is acquired.
At the middle and high school level, this means a stronger focus on career guidance with opportunities to explore careers and work-integrated learning opportunities that allow young people to see the connection between the classroom and workplace. Classes should allow students to explore but also to drill deeper into career fields they connect with.
Throughout the state, cutting-edge career and technical education (CTE) classes allow students to dive into careers as diverse as information technology, health care, agriculture, and business. Quality CTE programs bring the relevance of the working world into the classroom, making academics more meaningful and giving students a reason to pursue education beyond high school.
One tragedy of the college-for-all strategy is that CTE programs are viewed as tracking kids away from college. In fact, there are many examples of CTE programs that connect to college programs and to high demand careers. An excellent example is Edmonds School District’s aerospace engineering program of study, which introduces students to the aerospace industry through the nationally recognized Project Lead the Way curriculum. Students are able to receive credit both in high school and at a community college, which encourages them to continue into higher education and, ultimately, on to an engineering degree. Far from tracking students, these programs open doors, making college more accessible and attainable.
To create more pathways to success, our higher education system must be capable of enrolling and educating students at any stage in their life and careers, not just directly from high school. This means multiple exit and re-entry points with educational credentials that provide a wider range of time frames, and that also can stack together to build higher levels of education achievement. So for example, a student who earns an industry-recognized certificate at a community college can later add more credits and obtain an associate’s degree.
Key to this is business and industry engagement in our schools, especially when students are in middle and high school. Research indicates that work experience is a vital part of youth development. By providing mentoring, job shadowing and other work experience opportunities such as internships and part-time employment, businesses can help youth see the connection between the workplace and the classroom. This helps students and also helps the businesses who will eventually employ them.
The state’s Workforce Board has put forth a number of strategies to build Washington’s multiple pathway education and training system. This approach has been endorsed by a recent report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can review the proposed strategies and comment on them at: www.wtb.wa.gov/highskills2012.asp.