College is the Means, Career is the End

Type: Article
Topics: College- Career- and Life-Readiness, School Administrator Magazine

August 01, 2018

An argument for requiring all students to develop the professional skills for the workplace

Robert Schwartz (standing) presents to colleagues, including his book co-author Nancy Hoffman (right), at Jobs for the Future in Boston, Mass.
Robert Schwartz (standing) presents to colleagues, including his book co-author Nancy Hoffman (right), at Jobs for the Future in Boston, Mass.

In 2011, two Harvard colleagues and I published a report called “Pathways to Prosperity.” In that report, we challenged the growing “college for all” movement, the notion that the primary purpose of American high schools is to prepare all students for admission to a four-year college or university.

We also asked why, if only one young American in three attained a four-year college degree by age 25, it made sense to make the college prep curriculum the default for everyone, as several states were doing. We challenged the assertions of economists that all the well-paying jobs in our society soon would be reserved only for people with at least a four-year college degree.

In the years since the report’s release, the conversation has moved from “college for all” to all students leaving high school college- and career-ready. The “and” in this phrase represents a significant shift, at least rhetorically, for it acknowledges that we no longer expect students to choose between college and career. The new challenge for American high schools is to prepare all students for both, especially if by “college” we now mean some form of postsecondary education or training, including apprenticeship, which former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez liked to characterize as “college without the debt.”

College Credentials

One of the things confusing about the college and career ready goal is that these two ambitions are not symmetrical. The reason we want students to leave high school “college ready” is that we hope all students will enroll in some form of postsecondary education or training soon after graduation. In fact, the enormous growth in dual enrollment and other early college strategies speaks to the growing movement to get as many students as possible started on postsecondary education while still in high school.

Although some percentage of high school graduates may need to go straight to work after high school for financial reasons, we do not want or expect most students to do so. Virtually all jobs created during the recovery from the last recession have been filled by people with at least some postsecondary education, and labor market projections continue to tell us that without some postsecondary credential, young people will be consigned to low-wage, low-skill jobs with limited opportunities for upward mobility.

Today, even the 20 percent or so of students who concentrate on career and technical education and graduate with one or more industry certifications have gotten the mes-sage that high school is no longer enough. Consequently, in my home state, Massachusetts, our popular and highly regarded regional vocational high schools typically have higher graduation and postsecondary enrollment rates than many of the surrounding high schools in their regions, and this pattern is hardly unique to Massachusetts.

If by “career ready” we do not mean ready to start a career upon graduation, what do we mean? In Illinois, one of the states in the Pathways Network, the legislature in 2016 passed a comprehensive Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act, which required Illinois school districts to adopt an integrated framework outlining what all students should know about both college and career each year from 8th grade through graduation.

One small northern Illinois school district, Hinckley-Big Rock Community Unit School District 429, is implementing this requirement in a distinctive manner. (See related story.)

Suburbs Too
So what is the argument for including all students in a career-readiness strategy? At one level, it’s pretty simple: We want all students to aspire to get launched on a career path at whatever point they leave the education system, not just be focused on getting a job.

In order to do that, we need to expose all young people in a systematic way to the world of work and careers, beginning at least as early as the middle grades, so they can understand the intersection between their own interests and strengths, the range of occupations that match those interests and strengths, and the education and training pathways that can lead them there.

Some may ask whether this form of career readiness is really essential for those suburban districts where virtually all students say they are heading off to four-year institutions. I argue yes. Given the rising costs of four-year colleges and universities and the no-longer guaranteed return on investment, most parents would applaud a school district that helped its students develop enough of a career plan to choose colleges and majors with at least one eye on the labor market outcomes of their graduates.

Without this type of plan, college becomes the destination, not a route to a career. Given an average student debt burden today of just under $28,000, no one who undergoes the time and expense of earning a four-year degree should have to discover only upon graduation that her or his degree has little value in the labor market.

Workplace Habits
But there is a second reason why career readiness is important for all. In survey after survey, when employers are asked what skills they are looking for in entry-level employees, at the top of the list, well ahead of core academic skills and technical skills, are such things as problem-solving, leadership, self-direction and the ability to work in teams.

These often are described as “soft” skills, but I prefer to characterize them as professional skills. They are essential for success across virtually all occupations, and in a world in which machines are rapidly replacing people in jobs that require little or no human judgment or interaction, professional skills become even more necessary.

Where are such skills best developed? Not in classrooms, in my view, but in well-structured workplaces. While schools and classrooms can be organized in ways that develop such skills, the importance of these skills really doesn’t sink in for young people until they experience them in a real workplace, working alongside adults who are responsible for delivering a product or a service in real time.

When I ask an audience how many got their first work experience at age 16 or 17, virtually every hand goes up. When I ask a follow-up question about how they got this experience — typically an after-school or summer job — the answer is almost always on their own or with help from parents. Audience members are shocked when I then recite the statistics showing how the bottom has dropped out of the traditional youth labor market, with fewer than one young person in four getting any work experience by age 17, and young people from middle-class families three times as likely to get work experience as those from low-income families.

A Sequence Question
If we think it is important for all young people to have an opportunity before leaving high school to begin to develop those professional skills that employers deem essential, then high schools will need to take a role in working with employer associations, workforce boards and community-based organizations to make this possible.

In New York City, which joined the Pathways Network in late 2016, a small working group comprised of senior staff from the school department, city government, the City University of New York, a leading employer organization and a few youth-serving community organizations has been developing an approach to better integrate preparation for jobs and careers into public high schools and colleges.

The group has recognized the importance of expanding early college work in high school and of providing young people with early work experiences. Among the questions under discussion: What would it take to provide an opportunity for all students to attain at least six college credits while in high school and to have at least one internship or other extended work-based learning experience?

The working group has just begun the challenge of figuring out what sequence of experiences, in school and out, would need to be in place beginning in the middle grades to prepare students for these twin opportunities and what each partner organization would have to commit to do differently to realize this ambitious vision. But what is most encouraging is the shared understanding among the leaders at the planning table. They recognize this work cannot be accomplished by the schools alone and will require a different form of collaboration across participating agencies and sectors if all students are to be supported to meet this new and more ambitious definition of career readiness.