Editorial: Dropout rates shouldn’t de-emphasize college as option

By Staff Editorial

Everyone should have access to a college education, right? A bachelor’s degree usually leads… Everyone should have access to a college education, right? A bachelor’s degree usually leads to a higher salary and a better quality of life — shouldn’t all young people have the chance to reap those benefits?

Well, according to the authors of a new report out of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, America’s so-called “college for all” philosophy demands revision.

Aggregating a host of recent data from different sources, the 2011 “Pathway to Prosperity” report by the Harvard University Graduate School of Business shows that 70 percent of U.S. high school students proceed to college within two years of graduating. Only 56 percent of those who attend four-year colleges complete their coursework in six years. Of all current 27-year-olds in the country, only 40 percent have associate degrees or higher. The authors are afraid that the alarming college drop-out rates could soon lead to a depressing historical anomaly — that future generations will be less educated, percentage-wise, than their parents.

Instead of trying to push more young people into college and to boost degree-completion rates — an idea that hasn’t proven successful — the authors of the report conclude that the K-12 system should emphasize vocational schooling and provide more comprehensive career counseling. They offer the model of Western Europe, whose countries boast better-established vocational-training programs and involve more students in such programs than the United States. In one striking example, more than 50 percent of Swiss high school students participate in programs that combine school work with employment-based training. The Harvard researchers contend that such career-centered secondary education accounts for the higher educational-completion rates generally seen in Western Europe — both for high school and college students.

The contrasts between the United States’ shortcomings and the advances of foreigners is typically not easy to swallow for a largely xenophobic, “buy American”-believing public. But Europe might have lessons to teach the builders of our educational future — though they’re lessons that policymakers and school administrators should hesitate to adopt.

Judging from our own experience, we think the authors correctly defined the problem — high schools today, both public and private, focus more on preparing students for college than for careers. When facing the pressure that comes with the AP system, No Child Left Behind and lowering land values , more school districts are designing curricula to help students pass tests and get into prestigious colleges. Whereas European students view high school as a career necessity, Americans see it as nothing more than a cog in the college-admission machine.

But no one’s exclaiming, “Let’s turn our country into Germany.” In fact, doing so would be ethically negligent. According to the report, the German pre-professional/apprenticeship training program separates children into career tracks as early as middle school — and this is a practice we should avoid.

A greater emphasis on career-tracking during high school might open broader educational doors as the authors suggest, but it runs a fine line. A tracking program that’s too invasive — one that takes deciding power from the students and their families — runs contrary to the American Dream. It might be true that IQ scores at age 7 are strongly predictive of IQ at age 23, but that doesn’t mean that when a child is 7, a committee of officials should choose where he’ll be working on his 23rd birthday. The fact that college students often make bad career decisions and change their minds might underlie their dismal graduation rates, but precluding young people from being able to manifest their own destiny insults what makes this country so special.

Another issue is that — at least for the technical schools that currently operate in the United States — enrollment seems disproportionally filled with certain racial and socioeconomic groups. Many students also see vocational training as the thing “dumb people” do. Such problems must be fixed before a sweeping reorganization of the educational system is attempted.

Considering the care that must be taken to satisfy the ethical concerns and to reduce the stigma of technical schools, bringing the German vocational-school model to the States could take years. In the meantime, however, we do have bratwurst.