Back-to-school time is approaching. Experts from all corners of society have been trying to define what skills are necessary to prepare young adults for the workforce. The trend has been to push for higher academic, classroom-based education for all students.
This single-minded “college for all” approach, however, has been challenged in a recent Harvard University Graduate School of Education Study, which provides valuable observations.
Statistics show that high school students often drop out because the school curriculum is not interesting to them and what they are being taught is not relevant to their lives or their futures. The Harvard Study finds that preparing for a career, as opposed to simply preparing for college, is a “pathway to prosperity” that could help solve America’s achievement gap.
The Harvard Study argues for an educational program that clearly articulates career options and what must be done to prepare for a given career. The program should then provide real-world coursework and training as early as middle school so students can chart an informed course toward their chosen career.
The study points to the successful model used by Germany and Switzerland, where employers take the lead in defining job qualifications and provide students with paid apprenticeships that integrate work and learning. In the process, these employers are able to identify the best future employees for their operation and to offer them jobs after graduation. While corporations here offer scholarships from the sidelines, preparing students for work is seen as the government’s responsibility.
It is not true that a bachelor’s degree makes one better prepared for the workplace and a more productive member of society. Many innovators and entrepreneurs are not college graduates, and many without a college degree earn more than their bachelor-degree-bearing counterparts. It’s not uncommon that the barista making your morning latte has a master’s degree. All too often, the degree itself doesn’t matter as much as the school one graduates from and whom one knows in the job market, giving an automatic upper hand to the more affluent.
It is important that students hear early on that community college courses can lead to well-paying jobs in technology, healthcare, and other fields. And high schools should offer more education in the trades. If students are genuinely interested in a subject they are less likely to drop out, and success in the trades requires real knowledge and learning. But unfortunately, classes have been cut at most community colleges, and shop, business and home economics classes are almost extinct at high schools.
While some students may enjoy and flourish in academic settings, others do not. A work-linked learning model offers more diverse pathways to careers and a well-rounded society. Behaving as though four-year college is the only route to success does a disservice to us all.
Originally published in Alameda Sun