student success

The Tragic Tension Between College and Career Readiness

What’s the right approach:
  1. Counsel all graduating seniors to go to college, including the students who can’t afford it or may be unprepared academically or socially, because it will pay off in the end:


  2. Tell students that “college is not for everyone” and steer those who may not be a good fit towards getting a trade.
Overworked, understaffed high school counselors face this dilemma daily. For most of my K-8 teaching career, I sat squarely in Camp #1. But having worked with high schoolers for the past three years as the alumni director of my school, I’ve found myself in and out of Camp #2. Why? I’ve seen this scenario too many times: A kid with no financial safety net and a mediocre academic record gets a partial scholarship to a decent out-of-town college. He goes away and I’m sending him all kinds of well wishes. A year later, he’s back home. The explanations vary: “I felt unsupported at school”; “I couldn’t afford it”; “I was placed on academic probation”; “I partied too much.” The kid is now stocking shelves at the local grocery store, saddled with regret and a $350-a-month student loan bill for the next 10 years. Then, of course, I struggle to know how to advise the other 50 percent of my former students who never bought into the dream of higher education. Beyond urging them to give a two-year college a try, I usually don’t know what else to say. With a large part of my job being to tally up the college enrollment numbers, I’ve questioned if I was exhibiting low expectations by advising them to pick a trade. Enter Jeff Livingston, CEO of EdSolutions. I met Livingston at the NewSchools Summit in San Francisco last month, and I later discovered his insightful four-minute video that grapples with the tension between Camp #1 and #2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzqYvOIwNEI In the video, Livingston argues that educators claim to promote “college- and career-readiness,” but we have over-emphasized college at the expense of legitimate, in-demand careers.
In the United States, we have shamefully convinced most high school students that they either need to go to Harvard or they need to [work at] McDonald’s, and the truth is significantly more complicated than that. In the middle is where job growth is, where there are jobs not being filled today, and too few people in our public policy community are really focused on what students who are really going to pursue a career as their pathway out of poverty, for example, really need to be getting from their education.
Livingston calls it “tragic” that technical skills are being neglected in discussions with a vast majority of students about their post-secondary options. He urges policymakers to create more paid apprenticeships—where kids get academic and on-the-job training—to create a pipeline for the tech jobs that are hard to fill.
If you ask employers, industry leaders, they tend to agree with me. We are not thinking enough about middle-skills jobs. We are not thinking about technical jobs below the level of engineer. And I think society and policymakers really need to pay some careful attention to that.
When I consider the unimpressive college attainment statistics, not having a robust menu of career pathway options for non-college students—particularly for students of color—seems irresponsible. For example, in my hometown of Chicago the high school graduation rate is at an all-time high of 74 percent. The college enrollment rate, however, is a mere 44 percent, less than half of Chicago Public School students who enroll in college will earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. The haves and have nots break along color lines: 38 and 48 percent of degree attainment goes to Blacks and Latinos respectively, compared to 71 and 72 percent for Whites and Asians. And remember—these statistics only count the kids who actually attempt college—not the 56 percent of high school graduates who never bother to enroll or the 26 percent who don’t even finish high school. Says Livingston:
The reality is that the notion that you go off to college, live in a dorm, go to football games, graduate in four years and go on with your life is a persistent myth that has little to do with the lives of most people pursuing a degree after high school right now. The sooner we get to the point where we take the ‘career’ side of the ‘college and career readiness’ equation much more seriously, the better off our society will be, the fewer young people who will be in a position of not being in school or at work, and the better off we will be in terms of filling existing jobs requiring high levels of skills for which there are no employees today.
I put a high premium on the great work that my colleagues at OneGoal, Posse Foundation, GEAR UP, Chicago Scholars, One Million Degrees, and other college attainment and persistence organizations do for low-income or first-generation college students who need additional support and resources to get through school. They are fighting for college access for all. I only wish there were just as many highly-skilled paid apprenticeship programs available for students who don’t want to go to college but have an overwhelming desire to start working immediately after high school. These are my alumni who are 19 years old and washing dishes in restaurants; loading boxes at UPS; and cashiering at the local dollar store. And since I am not going to pay their college tuition or chip in when their mom can’t make the rent, it can become difficult for me to argue with them. Ultimately, students need better post-secondary choices: college, trade school, and apprenticeships (Camp #3). I know dozens of kids who would love the opportunity to get academic training, work experience, and a middle-class paycheck in a technical field all at the same time. Instead, they’re working at McDonald’s.
Marilyn Rhames
Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” ...

Join the Movement