The Opportunity Movement

Devoted to closing the Opportunity Divide

Tag Archives: higher education

With a window of opportunity, what country do we want to build?

Now that the election is over, we have an opportunity to come together as a country on an idea that is distinctly not political: getting Americans back to work.  Above all else, I’m feeling optimistic that now, we can do it.

Part of my optimism stems from seeing the 80 CEOs who recently came together to urge Washington to do what is necessary to avoid the fiscal cliff.  What’s to stop a similar group of business leaders from coming together to support solving another national crisis: the growing Opportunity Divide in this country?

Part of it is timing.  Across the country, we are moving closer to broad recognition that growing inequality of income and, more importantly, of wealth, hurts everyone.  The growing skills gap hurts our economy and demands an effort to rethink our approach to preparing young people to enter the workforce.  At the same time, online courses like MOOCs are transforming higher education from the university model to an aggregate model, which has the potential to truly democratize education by making it affordable for all.  Though the transition is just beginning and will surely involve some speed bumps, that’s something that no one has been able to do up to this point. 

We have an opportunity to make sure that our practices and policies do not divide us into two Americas – one America where opportunity abounds and another one where it is nonexistent.

The only question is, what is the country that we want to build? 

I am hopeful that we’ll build a country that sees the potential inherent in all of our young people, not just the ones born in the right zip codes or with the right amount of money in their parents’ bank accounts. 

Imagine how things could be different if all young adults had affordable access to higher education after completing high school, and if hiring managers recognized their potential and the credentials from their online courses as legitimate preparation for entry-level jobs that would help them build careers.  We know what young people can accomplish with that kind of opportunity, along with the right support, because we see them do it every day at Year Up, and it could power our economy and our country.

I’m thankful to work in an organization full of individuals who are fueled by the success and passion of these young people.  I’m hopeful that, with this window of opportunity, we will build a country that sees their potential and makes sure they have the opportunity to realize it.

16% vs 84%

The numbers are shocking.  A study highlighted in the New York Times this week revealed that only 16% of recent high school graduates not enrolled in college are working full-time.  An additional 22% are working part-time (often because they can’t find full-time work) and most believed they would be unable to get good jobs without further education, inaccessible for many.

Where does that leave us?  It leaves us with an unforgivably high percentage of young adults who lack a path to economic self-sufficiency, and whose talent is going to waste.  And with such low odds for this generation of young people, the message to the next generation is clear: if you don’t plan – or can’t afford – to go to college after high school, don’t expect much for yourself.

This wasted potential seems especially frustrating when you consider how avoidable it is.  There are many jobs in this country that do not require four-year college degrees, and many that require them even though they are unnecessary.  With some additional training, through a vocational program or through an employer, many of these young adults could not only fill those jobs, but excel in them.

Take, as an example, Samantha Lewis, a graduate of Year Up Bay Area.  Before she started the program, Samantha, a 22-year-old high school graduate with no college degree, was unemployed and homeless.  Her talent and hard work during the program ultimately earned her a permanent position at Wells Fargo – a position for which her supervisor had previously been seeking a candidate with a college degree and 10 years of experience. 

Compare the 16% in the New York Times with the 84% of Year Up graduates (also high school graduates without college degrees) employed or attending college full-time within 4 months of completing the program.  The second number should show you that these young adults have the talent and motivation to succeed in the workplace and build meaningful careers.  What they lack is the opportunity to do so.  It is critical that we make these opportunities accessible to them – for these young adults, these companies, and our nation as a whole. 

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” (http://www.hepg.org/hep/book/148).

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