The United States must change its elitist approach to education, which promotes a four-year college degree as the only road to success, the director of a Harvard report on career-based education said Wednesday.
Doing so leaves too many young people unable to find meaningful work and ignores a widening skills gap in the labor market, said William Symonds, project director of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Pathways to Prosperity Project.
“The truth is the direction we’ve been moving leaves lots of kids on the sidelines,” he said in a speech to a group of Nebraska policymakers, educators and business people at a symposium on creating career-based education programs in the state.
Cathy Lang, director of the state Department of Labor and Economic Development, told participants she hoped to define steps Nebraska needs to take to engage young people and fill jobs in fields such as health care and manufacturing.
Every high school dropout is a "missing link" in the state's economic development plan, she said.
Some school districts have started career-based programs, and Lincoln Public Schools has made creating a technical program or high school one of its priorities.
The Harvard report has received “extraordinary interest,” said Symonds, who has spoken in 30 states.
The idea of finding ways to make all students successful by offering career-based education and counseling, internships, apprenticeships and duel credit options spans political parties the way few issues do, he said.
More and more mid-level skills jobs require post-secondary certificates or associate degrees, and employers can’t find trained workers to fill them, Symonds said.
By 2018, 66 percent of jobs will require some post-secondary education, but just 29 percent will require four-year degrees or more, he said. The remaining 37 percent will require some college or associate’s degrees.
Many will be well-paying jobs that allow people to support families and earn decent retirements, he said.
A cultural resistance to career-based education attaches a stigma to such mid-level skills jobs as being less important than earning a four-year college degree, Symonds said.
“We need to move away from this elitist approach to education,” he said.
Career-based education offers options to students and helps them explore different career fields, but it doesn't force them into career tracts at young ages, as some nations do, he said. And the United States essentially has ignored students not prepared to get four-year degrees.
“We’ve essentially been tracking millions of kids right now into lives of frustration and failure,” Symonds said
Just 56 percent of students who enroll in four-year colleges earn degrees, he said. The percentage is lower for those in two-year programs.
Education reform has focused on test scores as a way to improve education, but there's growing recognition those reforms are too narrowly focused, Symonds said.
Helping students decide what they want to do must begin in high school, with comprehensive career counseling and opportunities to learn about different fields and jobs available in them, he said.
Nebraska must create multiple career pathways for students, and businesses must play a bigger role, including job-training opportunities.
"This isn't a call for radical reform," Symonds said. "It's a call for common-sense reform."