graduates (Matgouranis, 2010). At the
same time, Edward Gordon (2009), a
workforce researcher and writer, predicts that as many as 12 to 24 million
U.S. jobs—most of them requiring technical skills and training in 21st century
technologies—may go unfilled between
now and 2020 because too few workers
have the skills these jobs require.
and earning less than those with middle
skills. Indeed, for many students, a two-year degree or occupational certification, especially in high-demand 21st
century technologies, may provide a
better chance of rewarding work and
financial security. EL
The Problem with College for All
In a recent report, a Harvard com-
mission observed that the college-
for-all push may overemphasize one
students remain clueless about what it
actually takes to succeed in college. A
survey of 2,000-plus high school seniors
in the Chicago area found that more
than one-half of low-achieving stu-
dents (with Cs or lower) still aspired to
college, even though only 13. 9 percent
of such low-performing students were
likely to attain even a two-year degree
The college-for-all push may overemphasize
one set of career options while devaluing
another—namely, middle-skill jobs.
set of career options while devaluing
another—namely, middle-skill jobs that
often lead to higher-paying work than
college diplomas (Symonds, Schwartz,
& Ferguson, 2011). The commission
observed that it may be no coincidence
that as the United States pushed more
students toward college, often at the
expense of vocational programs, our
high school graduation rate fell from
1st to 13th place in the world. Indeed,
many countries that now outperform
the United States on a variety of education outcomes—including Finland,
Switzerland, Denmark, and Germany—
“offer more diverse, robust pathways
to careers and practical-minded postsecondary options than we do in the
U.S.” (Symonds, Schwartz, & Ferguson,
2011, p. 18).
Moreover, James Rosenbaum (2001)
of Northwestern University argues that
“The college-for-all norm encourages all
students to plan on college, regardless
of their past achievement. So as not to
discourage students, the college-for-
all norm . . . fails to tell students what
steps they should take to be successful
in college” (p. 57). As a result, many
higher than the 75 percent rate of U.S.
high schools in general (Rich, 2011) or
the 60 percent graduation rate of col-
leges (Schneider, 2010).
More Than One Road to Success
To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors
of the demise of the college diploma
may have been greatly exaggerated. On
average, college degrees—and especially
professional degrees—still command a
significant wage premium in the marketplace. Moreover, the old days of high
school graduates earning a comfortable
living are fading fast; the best-paying
jobs of the future will all require some
form of postsecondary education (
Carnevale, Strohl, & Smith, 2010).
Certainly, there are many nonfinancial
reasons to attend college. Yet to the
extent that calls for preparing all students for college-level work are based
on the belief that a four-year degree
guarantees a passport into the middle
class, educators would do well to
remember that the route to a college
degree is littered with dropouts and that
many college graduates now find themselves mired in debt, underemployed,
Carnevale, A. P., Rose, S. J., & Cheah, B.
(2011). The college payoff: Education, occupations, lifetime earnings. Washington, DC:
Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Carnevale, A. P., Strohl, J., & Smith, N.
(2009). Help wanted: Postsecondary education and training required. New directions
for community colleges, 2009 (146), 21–31.
Gordon, E. E. (2009, September). The future
of jobs and careers. Techniques, 84( 6),
Matgouranis, C. (2010, October 18).
The underemployed college graduate
[blog post]. Retrieved from Center for
College Affordability and Productivity
Rich, M. (2011, July 10). Tough calculus
as technical schools face deep cuts. New
York Times, p. A1. Retrieved from www
Rosenbaum, J. (2001). Beyond college for all:
Career paths for the forgotten half. New
York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Schneider, M. (2010). Finishing the first lap:
The cost of first-year student attrition in
America’s four-year colleges and universities.
Washington, DC: American Institutes of
Surowiecki, J. (2011, November 11).
Debt by degrees. The New Yorker, p. 50.
Retrieved from www.newyorker.com/talk/
Symonds, W. C., Schwartz, R. B., & Fer-
guson, R. (2011). Pathways to prosperity:
Meeting the challenge of preparing young
Americans for the 21st century. Cambridge,
MA: Pathways to Prosperity Project,
Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Vedder, R. (2010, December 9). The great
college degree scam [blog post]. Retrieved
from Innovations: Insights and Commentary
on Higher Education, Chronicle of Higher
Education at http://chronicle.com/blogs/