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Education Reporter

Rethinking 'College for All'
In an attempt to justify ever-increasing educational expenditures in the midst of a weak economy, President Obama asserted last month that "The best economic policy is one that produces more college graduates." On numerous occasions the President has pledged to make the United States the world leader in college attainment by 2020, with a specific goal of increasing the percentage of the population of people ages 25 to 34 who hold an associate's or bachelor's degree from 40% to 60%.

While the argument tying advanced education to a robust economy sounds reasonable on the surface, three recent reports suggest it is time to rethink the conventional wisdom.

Limited Learning

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The first study suggests that many students who go to college aren't learning much. Sociologists Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia paint a dismal picture in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the book presenting their findings.

The study found that at the end of their sophomore years, 45% of students showed little improvement in general competencies like critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing. Even after four years of college, 36% of students still showed no significant gains in those key measures.

At least some of the fault seems to lie with lax academic standards. The study revealed that half of students did not take a single course that required 20 pages of writing during the prior semester, and one-third did not take a class requiring a modest 40 pages of reading per week.

Student study habits did not help matters; on average, students spent only 12 hours per week studying, and about one-third of that time was spent studying with peers. Students who studied alone had greater gains, while those who studied in groups showed less growth. Those who spent more time in sororities and fraternities fared worse.

More than 2,300 undergraduates from 24 schools participated in the study. According to the nonprofit Council for Aid to Education, the study is the first large-scale research using direct measures to determine how much undergraduate students learn. (blogs.edweek.org, 1-18-11)

Limited Job Opportunities

A second study produced by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity concludes that America is producing too many, rather than too few, college graduates. The authors of From Wall Street to Wal-Mart: Why College Graduates are not Getting Good Jobs report that even as college costs and student debt rise, the financial payoff for many graduates is shrinking. That is because the number of jobs requiring a degree has not kept pace with the ever-increasing number of graduates.

In 1970, only 9.8% of college graduates were underemployed. This proportion grew to 17.7% by 1992, and then rose dramatically to 34% by 2008 (the most recent year for which adequate data is available). The nation added roughly 20 million college graduates between 1992 and 2008, but 12 million of them took jobs that did not require a college education. In other words, 60% of those graduates were underemployed.

Additionally, real dollar median earnings for college graduates were lower in 2009 than in 1998, even though real college costs were much higher for the more recent graduates. This reality is not surprising given the underlying data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that between 1992 and 2008 the percentage of retail sales and commodities workers who had college degrees increased by almost 67% and the percentage of motor vehicle operators who had college degrees increased by 36%. (See below chart for more examples.)


One of the most salient conclusions in the report is that the underemployment problem is not simply a result of the current recession and therefore won't subside when the economy improves. Rather, the current mismatch of available jobs and educational attainment is the continuation of a long-term trend that won't be remedied by churning out a higher percentage of graduates.

The report also notes how the trend of more people spending four to five additional years in school contributes to another growing national problem: "As the population ages over time, the luxury of having low labor force participation amongst the 18- to 24-year-old population (because they are largely attending college) becomes very costly to a society short of workers. More technically, the 'everyone should go to college' syndrome worsens the dependency ratio - the size of the nonworking population per worker."

'One Size Fits All' Harms Many

The nation's narrow focus on preparing students for four-year college programs has failed a vast population of students, says a Harvard University Graduate School of Education Report titled Pathways of Prosperity. Despite the dominant "college for all" push, six in ten Americans don't complete a bachelor's or associate's degree by their mid-twenties.

The report notes that of the 47 million jobs the United States is expected to create from 2008 to 2018, only a third of them will require a college degree. Another 30% will only require an associate's degree or a vocational certificate. The authors argue that our education system needs to account for these realities by offering numerous pathways to successful careers.

"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," said Robert Schwartz, professor at the Harvard School of Graduate Education, and head of the Pathways to Prosperity project. Schwartz was previously a prominent proponent of high academic expectations for all students, but eventually began to question the 'one size fits all' college preparatory emphasis in education.

Some of the pathways open to those who don't choose college include millions of "middle skill jobs" like construction management or dental hygienist. These jobs pay more than those typically held by those with only a high school diploma, and 27% of people with professional licenses or certificates — credentials short of an associate's degree — earn more than the average four-year college graduate. The report asserts that educators need to inform students about these career options and lay out clear roadmaps for coursework and training as early as middle school so students can make informed decisions as they prepare for high school graduation and beyond.

The report recommends a greatly expanded role for businesses in providing internships, apprenticeships and other forms of work-based learning as part of a rigorous course of study matched to each student's interests and abilities. Pathways to Prosperity Director William Symonds believes the business community offers rich learning opportunites and can help young adults develop realistic job aspirations.

Pathways project leaders are already collaborating with businesses in Silicon Valley, Illinois and Boston and with healthcare professionals in "on the ground" projects to develop effective career pathways for those who don't go to college. (edweek.org, 2-2-11)

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