The Associated Press ran a provocative story on May 13 questioning the universal value of a college education. This is relevant to Promise Neighborhoods, which is based on building a continuous pipeline from "cradle to college to career."
Supporters of a focus on college as a desired educational outcome often cite the higher employment rates and incomes of college graduates compared to non-college graduates as justification. But according to the AP article, some are beginning to question the causal link. Just because college graduates are more likely to be employed and paid higher salaries does not necessarily mean that the college education is what caused those outcomes. Family supports, connections, and job experience play a major role, as do many other factors.
Our concern is for those who might get left behind. The focus on college as the preferred outcome only becomes worrisome if it causes us to undervalue or ignore our youth who choose a different path.
According to the Associated Press:
The notion that a four-year degree is essential for real success is being challenged by a growing number of economists, policy analysts and academics. They say more Americans should consider other options such as technical training or two-year schools, which have been embraced in Europe for decades.
As evidence, experts cite rising student debt, stagnant graduation rates and a struggling job market flooded with overqualified degree-holders. They pose a fundamental question: Do too many students go to college?
Federal statistics show that just 36 percent of full-time students starting college in 2001 earned a four-year degree within that allotted time. Even with an extra two years to finish, that group's graduation rate increased only to 57 percent.
Spending more time in school also means greater overall student debt. The average student debt load in 2008 was $23,200 — a nearly $5,000 increase over five years. Two-thirds of students graduating from four-year schools owe money on student loans.
And while the unemployment rate for college graduates still trails the rate for high school graduates (4.9 percent versus 10.8 percent), the figure has more than doubled in less than two years.
Regardless of the strength of the causal relationship between college, jobs and pay, job experience is still important, which is why so many college students spend time in internships, for example. It is also one of the many reasons that we at UNCA have joined the Congressional Black Caucus in supporting summer jobs. Getting to a career is important, but there are several ways to get there.
This is important in the context of Promise Neighborhoods because the rhetoric of "cradle to college to career" seemingly undervalues the alternative of "cradle through high school to career." Fortunately, the actual indicators for Promise Neighborhoods do value alternative paths by recognizing vocational certificates or other industry-recognized certificates. This is a step in the right direction, though seemingly different from some of the rhetoric we have heard. It is important because performance measures, when they are meaningful, drive programmatic focus.
Let's not undervalue other children in an effort to send every child to college. We are happy that Promise Neighborhoods hasn't done that.