The Path Not Studied

Corporate executives, elected officials, political analysts, leading academics, and the rest of the national elite have formed a chorus of voices proclaiming the value of more and better education for all Americans. The message to the nation, particularly the young and disadvantaged, says in essence: Do what we did and you will have interesting, respected, and financially rewarding careers just like us. What’s more, the nation will be richer, public health will improve, and our democratic political system will function more effectively.

How could anyone object? This is the same advice these luminaries give to their own children as they push them along the path to a four-year college degree and graduate or professional school. The ethos of our meritocratic society holds that the same opportunities are available to everyone, and everyone can benefit from a rigorous academic education. The nation’s leaders have followed this path themselves, many traveling far from humble and difficult beginnings. They know it well, and they know it works.

The only flaw in this vision is that this path is not really open to everyone. And even if everyone did earn a college degree, most would still find themselves in jobs that do not require a college degree but that do require skills quite different from what they learned. The chorus is correct that Americans can benefit from more education and training, and many Americans recognize this. But tens of millions of people who accept this advice do not follow the well-known path through a four-year academic degree. They attend one of the nation’s 1,200 community or technical colleges, take courses at one of the roughly 2,700 for-profit career colleges, enroll in an apprenticeship program, or study for a certificate in an infotech or health care specialty. They make up the majority of young Americans who follow the path not studied.

We in the policy elite, particularly in science, technology, and health, devote enormous attention to the quality of the education that will produce future scientists, engineers, physicians, corporate executives, and entrepreneurs, and there is no doubt that the academic superstars makes an invaluable contribution to the nation’s well-being. But we also preach that the nation’s success depends on the skills and contributions of people in every corner of the economy. Yet remarkably little attention is paid to the quality of community colleges or their for-profit competitors.

We endorse the notion that every high school student needs to be prepared to attend a four-year college, even though we know that more than a quarter of high school graduates will go directly to work and another quarter will pursue postsecondary education in someplace other than a four-year college. For the foreseeable future only about 30% of U.S. jobs will require a baccalaureate degree. In offering advice to young people, it would be wise to learn a little more about the real opportunities that exist, the types of education and training they are actually choosing to pursue, and the quality of the educational options that are available and appealing to them.

Perhaps the nation would be better off if the elites spent a little less time fretting over whether U.S. News gives the higher rank to Yale or Princeton (with their combined 10,000 undergraduates) and a bit more to what the California community colleges are doing for their 1.6 million students or the University of Phoenix is doing for its 330,000 students. There is no doubt that Yale and Princeton are doing an estimable job, but do we have any confidence that the young people who are paying plenty to attend University of Phoenix classes are receiving the education that will benefit them and the nation?

The first challenge in evaluating the quality of community colleges is to identify their mission. We ask community colleges to make up for the deficiencies of the nation’s high schools, to prepare students to transfer to four-year programs, to provide practical career training for a diverse and rapidly evolving job market, to be responsive to the training needs of local companies, and to provide enriching classes in art, literature, music, and a variety of other fields that have no connection to work.

A school that offered popular arts classes and targeted employee training for people not seeking a degree and that had a large number of students who transferred to a four-year college before receiving an associate’s degree could be deemed a failure because of its very low degree-completion rate. Or a school that offered strong basic academic courses and granted many associate’s degrees to students who were primarily interested in a job credential might be hailed as a success. One reason for the popularity of the for-profit career colleges is that they are unambiguous about their mission of offering courses that will be immediately useful in winning a promotion or finding a new job.

Idealistic educators worry about tracking students toward courses that do not prepare them for a four-year college. They argue that everyone can benefit from a rigorous academic education. Although it might seem enlightened to pursue this course, does it really serve the interests of all students? Many school systems have deemphasized career and technical education in their high schools because this training limits students’ future opportunities. But there are many students who have no desire to attend college and who would be much better off if they received training that would qualify them for a better-paid job with just a high school diploma. Shouldn’t we pay attention to the fact that 92% of high school students take at least one occupational course in high school?

One reason that education is such a popular medicine for national ailments as different as income inequalities and global economic competitiveness is that everyone supports the idea without paying too much attention to the details. Although we might like to believe that the simple educational goal of enhancing the quality of standard academic education will do as much to close the wage gap as to expand the pool of scientists and engineers, it’s not that easy. One size does not fit all.

Enormous differences exist in the social, economic, and intellectual resources of young Americans, and these result in a broad diversity of interests and aspirations. Why would we expect them all to be well served by the same path through school? We do many of these young people a disservice by pretending that they can all follow the accepted route to the upper middle class. We need to be more curious about what these young people want and more honest about the educational options that will serve their needs. Postsecondary education is critically important to all young people and to the nation. But what type of education other than the four-year college?

One objection to a multi-track educational system is that it will reduce social mobility by providing only limited opportunities to some social groups. That could happen, but it need not. Being born into an affluent, well-educated family undoubtedly gives someone a head start on the road to a professional degree, but as the parents in these families know, it is no guarantee that these kids will be academic superstars or particularly motivated in school. The people with the talent and the desire to excel in school can come from any social group. We need to continue to work to improve the quality of schools in low-income neighborhoods to ensure that promising young people do not have their aspirations undermined. Likewise, when students choose a path other than a four-year college, we should make certain that the institutions they attend receive the resources and the attention necessary to provide high-quality training. The problem is that we have not given community colleges or other alternative education paths adequate resources nor have we devoted enough attention to understanding what type of education and training should occur in these places or how we should ensure its quality.

Fortunately, a few farsighted experts have been curious about this question. You can read what they have found in this edition of Issues. This is no simple chore, and they cannot provide any simple answers. But at least they are looking in the right place and encouraging the rest of us to do the same.

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “The Path Not Studied.” Issues in Science and Technology 24, no. 4 (Summer 2008).

Vol. XXIV, No. 4, Summer 2008