College for all? Let’s think about that

Education reformers are right to promote college as a logical extension of high school, but they — we — should beware of getting boxed in a corner.

Simplistic reading of policy rhetoric about college readiness has inspired a backlash. Some point out that not everyone wants to go to college. True. Others hint darkly that not every student is college material. Not so true. Unless there are serious cognitive and developmental challenges, why not?

But the point that college isn’t for everyone is well taken. A thoughtful bridge between the college yes and college no crowd comes from the Pathways to Prosperity Project at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.


Two researchers from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were in Seattle last week to talk about the unintended consequences of the “college for all” push.

The college emphasis in high school led to a decline in career-related learning. A stubborn dropout rate only exacerbates the problem because it means students are leaving school without career plans, or worse, marketable job skills.

With all the media fascination on young people returning from college to sleep on Mom and Dad’s couch, a sizable population are unable to leave their parent’s house in the first place.

We ignore them at our economic peril. Non-college-degree holders outnumber those with associate and bachelor’s degrees. That’s despite the widely used statistic that nearly two-thirds of jobs in the future will require some college. Moreover, Harvard researchers found that despite the emphasis on college, this country is not producing enough college graduates. Yes, we should redouble efforts. Simultaneously, we need a contingency plan outside of college.

Here it is: Broaden “college for all” to include meaningful post-high-school credentials. This is not an alternative route for kids who couldn’t pass science or math. Needed are high-quality career and vocational education programs.

Employment among young people hovers at post-World War II lows — if you think we’re in a recession, young people see a depression. Postsecondary education is the new passport in a globally competitive economy. It can be in the form of college, apprenticeships or career certification.

At the same time, the number of degree holders will rise. Cutting-edge efforts and technology have brought us worthy options such as fully accredited online four-year institutions.

Focus on STEM

There must also be efforts to ensure many of the new degrees and certifications are in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics educational tent known as STEM.

There is a proper nexus between college-prep and quality vocational education. Learning can’t be divorced from the real world.

Educational efforts at the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research offer guidance. The nonprofit educational organization is pairing a program from the National Science Foundation — Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers — and money from the H1B Visa program to fuel high-school science programs. Many scientists working in the United States are on H1 Visas, so it makes sense to use the proceeds of that program to develop American scientists.

The biomedical research team is piloting a program this summer exposing high-school students to an emerging field centered on biology and information technology. The educational technology maker DigiPen is offering gaming expertise to help students design biotechnology tools — from computer interfaces to ways to store and understand millions of DNA bases.

At the mention of computer gaming, they’ll have many students.

Lynne K. Varner is a columnist for The Seattle Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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