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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Questioning the Purpose and Value of College for All Students

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

Every once in a while, a contrarian appears and challenges some of our basic assumptions about schooling in today's society. One of the biggest assumptions we have is that it is the job of school to prepare all our students for college. The jobs of the future require a four-year degree, at least. Students who do not go to college will be unable to find decent paying jobs and will be unable to support their families.

But I have wondered about this assumption for years. The majority of Americans still do not have college diplomas, yet they seem to manage to survive. Furthermore, it is unclear to me where all the highly paid jobs are going to come from if, all of a sudden, everyone earns a college degree. Everything I've read says that it is the service sector of the economy that is growing the fastest, and most of those jobs require little or no college education.

From Dennis Redovich at the Center for the Study of Jobs & Education in Wisconsin and the United States comes a report that says the following:

"The great numbers of high-paying jobs of the future that are claimed to require college graduation and high academic skills for all high school students are a hoax. The majority of the jobs of the future in Wisconsin and the United States are low- or average-paying jobs that require short-term or moderate-term on-the-job training and do not require high-level academic skills in any academic areas, particularly in higher mathematics."

The report then goes on to explain:

"Technology makes jobs simpler, not more difficult, and makes workers more productive. The great majority of the jobs of the future are the same jobs of the twentieth century with new technological tools that make these jobs easier to do. The jobs of the future in Wisconsin in 2016 are essentially the same jobs in existence in 2006. A majority of jobs in 2016, about 52 percent, are projected to require short-term on-the-job training or experience (less than a month) or moderate-length on-the-job training, experience, or education (one to twelve months)."

This conclusion has a lot of implications for our schools, especially on the high school course sequence. The report has this to say on that subject:

"It is not appropriate or constructive to require all high school students to pass three years of higher math and science courses and to meet the requirements for a four-year college to earn a high school diploma. No more than 5 percent of all jobs might require higher math and science skills, and only about 23 percent of all jobs require a bachelor's degree or more. Short-, moderate-, or long-term job training, work experience, postsecondary vocational training, or an associate degree is required for about 77 percent of all jobs. There is an abundance of well-educated people for jobs that require higher levels of education and training. The problem is available jobs, not public education."

This analysis also suggests we ought to take a second, hard look at vocational programs. Perhaps if we had more programs that prepared students for jobs in the real world they are entering, they might find school to be more relevant to their futures and stay to graduate rather than dropping out. When the only purpose of high school is to prepare you for a four-year college, those who are not college bound have little reason to stay.

I do not want to suggest that high school is simply here to prepare students for jobs. A high school education should -- like a good college education -- open students' minds to their possible futures. Students should be intellectually challenged in new ways. But our students come to us with different aspirations, interests, and abilities. The challenge of solving a quadratic equation is a noble one. But is the challenge of crafting something useful in a shop class any less noble?

So, what do you think? Should we structure our schools based on the assumption that everyone should go to college? Or should we listen to Dennis Redovich and rethink our approach?

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California
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