Alternatives to 'College for All'

Is a four-year college degree really the best fit for every young person?

By David Bass

The skyrocketing cost of higher education, coupled with a tough job market for young people, have some questioning the prevailing "college for all" perspective. Is a four-year college degree really the best fit for every young person?

On the other hand, statistics bear out that young people who don't attend college risk a lackluster future of low-paying jobs or a listless existence of long-term unemployment.

What's the solution? Refocus career exposure and development as a seminal purpose of education and offer Career and Technical Education as a vital post-secondary career pathway.

Donors explored these concepts at "Career Mobility for Youth and Young Adults," a Philanthropy Roundtable event held in Philadelphia in 2015. The good news is that pathways to work exist for the "quiet middle" of American youth—those young people who will graduate from high school but who won't go on to earn a four-year degree. 

Here are a few conclusions from the top philanthropic donors and experts in the field of Career and Technical Education, or CTE:

A vast demand exists for "middle skills" jobs: Stacy Holland, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Lenfest Foundation, stated that an estimated 31 million middle-skill jobs will be available this year. Donors have a unique opportunity to match youth with the skills needed to fill these jobs, often requiring a mix of formal instruction (such as an associate degree) with on-the-job training.

Dr. Lucretia Murphy, director in the Building Economic Opportunity Group at Jobs for the Future, emphasized that CTE jobs provide excellent compensation and career mobility potential. "These are good jobs. These are well-paying jobs," she said. "These are jobs that put people in line for promotions. These are jobs that are fulfilling. All of this has spurred a renewed interest in Career and Technical Education for young people."

Dr. Murphy also showed how CTE helps employers by training young people for jobs that would otherwise go unfulfilled. "CTE addresses the challenges that we face in our economy. There is a skills mismatch," she said.

"There is a middle-class myth that everyone has access to a four-year school. That's not the case. That's not the only pathway," noted Dennis Dio Parker, head of Toyota's Advanced Manufacturing Program, which collaborates with both local community and four-year colleges to develop pathways to employment for youth interested in skilled technical trades. Its programs offer three inter-related pathways—skilled technician, engineer, and business—to ensure that Toyota, and U.S. manufacturing more broadly, has a strong human talent stream.

CTE expands opportunities for poor and disadvantaged youth particularly: In times past, two primary career pathways existed for young people—four years (or more) at college earning a degree, or training through a vocational track. Traditionally, vocational training was viewed as the less successful pathway. But as donors at this conference reported, that isn't the case today.

CTE allows students to pursue a range of post-secondary pathways, which offer multiple "on and off ramps." The key is to create pathways that are interconnected, "stackable" (build on existing experiences), and allow for advancement.

"Those that find work early in young adulthood tend to stay in work going forward," noted David Jason Fischer, a senior fellow specializing in workforce development for the New York City-based Center for an Urban Future. "When you give young people the opportunity, they can seize the moment. We need to give young people more moments to seize."

K-12 schools are one source of training. Simran Sidhu, executive director of YouthBuild Charter School, explained that her institution offers equal parts academic instruction and hands-on job training through one out of four career tracts: construction, health care, childcare, and customer service.

Similarly, the N.C. Triangle Apprenticeship Program trains high-school students for successful (and lucrative) careers in technology. As founder Kent Misegades explained, NCTAP is modeled after the Swiss and German approach to career pathways, putting job readiness ahead of academic credentials. 

CTE relies on partnerships with corporations: "The world is not saying, 'Oh, you have a piece of paper? Sure, we'll hire you.' More skills and competencies are needed by employers," noted Tom Riley, vice president of the Connelly Foundation.

Alison Gerber of the Annie E. Casey Foundation shared one of her foundation's own success factors: being sector-specific is helpful for engaging employers. It's crucial to ensure that employers are involved so that a given CTE program truly understands their sector and is helping employers cultivate knowledgeable, reliable employees.

One example of a local, sector-specific CTE program is Penn Medicine. President Francis Graham explained that her organization works directly with three high schools that are located in economically depressed areas to expose students to careers in medicine. Similarly, YouthBuild Charter School works closely with employers to determine what the market values and tailors its vocational training accordingly.

Philanthropists can be influential in CTE: The reality is that many young people simply won't enroll in or complete a four-year degree; but they will pursue technical training to put them in sustainable middle-skills jobs. Donors have a prime window to fund efforts that open opportunities in this area. "It's going to require a lot of money, but ultimately it will be less money than we spend to subsidize, feed, house, and incarcerate those who fall out of the traditional education structure," said Fischer.