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College: It’s Not for Everyone, Says Harvard Study

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Even though the importance of a college education is drilled into children at an early age, just 30 percent of Americans earn a bachelor’s degree by the time they are 27 years old. High school and college students are dropping out in record numbers, causing some educators to believe that a traditional four-year degree is not the best path for everyone to pursue.

“College for All” Mindset Doing More Harm than Good

Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenges of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century, a new report issued by the Harvard Graduate School of Education on February 2, 2011, suggests that a “college for all” mindset may be doing more harm than good.

According to the report, the United States is placing too much emphasis on helping students pursue four-year college degrees when two-year degrees and occupational programs may actually help them become better prepared for the job market. Broadening the “pathways to prosperity” for young people would include placing far more emphasis on career counseling, career education, apprenticeship programs and attending community colleges as practical routes to well-paying jobs.

According to Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018, a report prepared by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, about one-half of the 47 million jobs for people with postsecondary education that the United States is expected to create in the 10-year period ending in 2018 will go to people with a two-year associate’s degree or occupational certificate.

Skills Gap Among Young Adults

There is growing evidence of a “skills gap” within the U.S. economy, which means that many young adults lack the skills and work ethic needed for many jobs that pay a middle-class wage. There has also been a dramatic decline in the ability of adolescents and young adults to find work— the percentage of teens and young adults who have jobs is currently at the lowest level since World War II.

“We are the only developed nation that depends so exclusively on its higher education system as the sole institutional vehicle to help young people transition from secondary school to careers, and from adolescence to adulthood,” says Robert Schwartz, academic dean and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who heads the Pathways to Prosperity Project.

Students Need Realistic Pathways to Careers

“For an awful lot of bored, disengaged kids who are on the fence about completing high school, they need to see a pathway that leads them to a career that is not going to require them to sit in classrooms for the next several years,” Schwartz said in a telephone interview with Bloomberg.

CNN explains that U.S. students traditionally receive career advice from middle and high school guidance counselors, but under the current system the average ratio of students to counselors is 500 to 1.

Schwartz is also quoted by the Christian Science Monitor: “It would be fine if we had an alternative system for students who don’t get college degrees, but we’re virtually unique among industrialized countries in terms of not having another system and relying so heavily on higher education.”

U.S. Students Unprepared for Global Economy

Two other studies released in the last two months have raised concerns that U.S. students aren’t prepared to compete in the global economy. In January, the U.S Department of Education said fewer than half of U.S. students are proficient in science. In December, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development, which represents 34 countries, released the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment in December, showing 15-year-olds in China, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan outperformed the U.S. in a test of reading, science and math, reports Bloomberg.

The ideas presented in Pathways to Prosperity aren’t brand-new, but the idea of providing more alternatives rather than emphasizing a four-year college education for all is not without controversy. Critics of the report’s suggestions fear that students who opt early for a vocational approach might limit their options later on, or that disadvantaged students would be pushed into technical careers and away from highly selective colleges, reports the Associated Press.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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