The Opportunity Movement

Devoted to closing the Opportunity Divide

Category Archives: Post-secondary education

Peter Drucker was right about higher education

60%. That’s the percentage of German high school graduates who choose vocational over academic education.  
7.8%.  That’s the unemployment rate for German youth.  Compare that to Spain, Greece, or America, where almost half of those under the age of 25 are unemployed.  7.8%!
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that there might be a link here.  In Germany and several other Northern European countries, choosing a vocational path after high school does not consign one to the ranks of a second class citizen.  Rather, it is what the majority of youth do, and it is considered a viable, enterprising post-high school path.  It would also appear that this choice has been a good one in terms of employment.  NPR’s “Morning Edition” ran a fascinating piece on this topic last week and concluded that the German model may present a compelling answer to the growing skills gap that we see all over our knowledge-based economy.
Here in America, we still have a decidedly dim view of vocational education, based on the perception that lower performing, often minority kids are getting “tracked” into low quality vocational schools at early ages, thus creating a dual class economy of educational winners and losers.  In my humble opinion, this holdover view from the 70s and 80s is outdated and just plain wrong.  Contrary to popular belief (as reported by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education):

  • Vocational education students enter postsecondary education at about the same rate as all high school graduates (Kober and Rentner 2000; Stone 1993)
  • Vocational graduates are more likely to be employed and earn more than their non-vocational counterparts, particularly vocational graduates who worked part time during high school (Stone 1993)

Indeed, the knee-jerk negative reaction that so many people have to the words “vocational education” stands at odds with the values many of them actually hold.  A 1997 Washington State Workforce Training and Education Board survey (cited by ERIC) revealed that almost 9 of 10 respondents agreed that high schools should provide some kind of career preparation to every student before graduation, 3 of 4 said that career education should start before high school, and 96 percent favored education for every student that provided a strong academic foundation, hands-on learning experience, and an opportunity to practice what he or she has learned in a work-based setting.  That data doesn’t square with the negative reaction that people have of voc-ed, does it?
I think we are on the cusp of a massive wave of post-secondary education reform.  As writer and management consultant Peter Drucker told me in 1997, “Don’t take four-year college for granted.” Boy, was he right.  A combination of changing workforce needs, technical innovation, runaway college costs and flat or declining real wages for most people will challenge the “college-for-all” rhetoric that so many of us now see as the only path to success in America.  We are about to observe the creation and acceptance of multiple enterprising pathways into the mainstream economy.   It will happen whether we like it or not, and I predict it will serve to increase both opportunity and mobility for millions of youth in this nation.

Note: If you want to go deeper here, my friend Nancy Hoffman provides an insightful lens on this topic in her book, “Schooling in the Workplace” (

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

How could we design, fund, and promote an educational system where the standards to graduate from high school are significantly less than the standards needed to succeed in a career or college?  If you explained this situation to a foreign visitor who had stepped for the first time into the American higher education system, they would look at you as if you had two heads.

Foreign visitor: Let me understand this correctly….your educational system is divided into two separate educational systems where the exit gates for one don’t align with the entry gates for the next?  And if you don’t want to go to college, you really aren’t prepared to do anything other than work 80 hours a week at minimum wage just to feed yourself and your family.  Come on– you can’t tell me that with a straight face.   Was it always like this in America?

US host: Well, for a whole bunch of years – centuries, in fact – our high school system did just what it was supposed to do: send about 20% of its students to college so that they could become professionals, businessmen, thinkers and the like.  Everyone else did just fine working with their hands, and working for the folks who did go to college.  Everyone was kind of happy, I guess.  But, this darn economy changed so fast.  Now, everyone – and I mean everyone – needs to get an education beyond high school.  And the jobs that pay decent money all require a set of pretty complex skills that our young people just aren’t learning in high school.   Our educational system just hasn’t kept pace and, in fact, other countries are starting to better prepare their young people for this new reality.

Foreign visitor: So what are you folks going to do?

US host:  Well, the first thing we have to do is to confront the cold hard facts: The average age of a Bachelors of Arts degree is 28 years old, and only 8 out of 100 American adults have a college degree that they received between the ages of 18 and 22.  Quite simply, we have to stop thinking that going to college at 18, graduating at 22 and then going to work – in a linear, monolithic fashion – is the only way that our citizens will get into the economic mainstream of our country.

Foreign visitor: OK, OK.  I get the basic argument.  So, what are you going to do?

US host: Well, there really are three things we have to do: 1) High schools need to better prepare our youth for both college and 21st century careers, period.  We can’t continue to graduate students from high school and not have them be ready to succeed in either post-secondary education or a livable wage job.  Traditional high schools need to take a good long look at how they provide work readiness skills, career exploration and career guidance; 2) everyone needs to get a post-secondary education, and there needs to be multiple pathways to get this education.  The end goals have not changed (i.e. a college degree,) although there needs to be new pathways to accommodate a much wider set of educational and economic needs.  Finally, 3) we have to better connect our educational system with the skills that our employers need, both today and tomorrow.   If employers don’t do this, they will have to start taking on the job of educating their future employees themselves.  Community colleges and employers should be walking in lockstep and four-year colleges should get off their academic high horses and recognize that the new liberal arts involve technical and financial literacy as well as teamwork, complex communications and cultural competency.

Foreign visitor: Last question.  Can you do it?

US host: Well, the stakes are low….just little things like our global competitiveness and our overall standard of living.   Hmmm… Did I just say that?…

Knowledge Based Vocational Education….it ain’t your Mother’s Voc Ed!

After ten years of trying my best to articulate the changes that are needed in our nation’s educational system, I could not be more excited to read the excellent report (Pathways to Prosperity) that was just published by Bob Schwartz and Ron Ferguson, both of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I almost strained my neck nodding to their arguments as I read, wondering when this point of view will become more mainstream…which it will. Just you wait. The tectonic plates have shifted, and to deny the new reality of what our labor market needs (and how we can accommodate those needs) is to hurt our nation’s young adults and consign our country to a position of decreased competitiveness. Sound alarmist? It ain’t!

“Pathways” goes to the heart of the changes that are needed in our post-secondary educational system – to create more opportunities for young adults to gain the skills, experiences and support that they need to obtain livable wage jobs in the 21st century economy. The authors not only present a compelling set of facts, but they also look abroad to those places that don’t ascribe a lower societal value to vocational education. They also address the very real concerns that many have about introducing any battle cry other than “4 year college for all”.

It sounds like heresy, I know, that not everyone needs to get a 4 year college degree and maybe, just maybe, there is real value in occupational certificates, apprenticeships, work-based learning and career-linked associates degrees. Worse, critics will tell you that such efforts will lead us down a path of tracking students into those who are college material and those who are not. However, here’s the reality: In today’s labor market, everyone has to be college…or rather, post-secondary…material. There is no other option. But, we have to let go of the idea that there is one- and only one- acceptable, valuable, indeed honorable, concept of what college is. College is not a fixed idea, much as the traditional camps would love to think. Nor is our current view of college the right one for today’s economy and labor market. We have to shift our thinking to a broader view of post-secondary education. One which does not close options but expands them. One which does not track students, but enables many with an unprecedented level of access, opportunity and upward mobility.

Although for many years I have felt like that lone tree in the woods falling on deaf ears, it is heartening to see the well argued and presented words of our friends in Cambridge. Somehow I think more people will now be listening….

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