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Report: Americans Overemphasize College as Key to Upward Mobility

Must everyone earn a four-year degree to achieve the American Dream? According to a report released today by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, the United States’ increasing emphasis on a single pathway to success is at least partly to blame for the country falling behind other nations. Indeed, the report found that “there are profoundly troubling signs that the U.S. is now failing to meet its obligation to prepare millions of young adults” to achieve economic success.

“We are the only developed nation that depends so exclusively on its higher education system as the sole institutional vehicle to help young people transition from secondary school to careers and from adolescence to adulthood,” said Dr. Robert Schwartz, an academic dean and professor at the Graduate School of Education in a statement. “Unless we are willing to provide more flexibility and choice in the last two years of high school, and more opportunities for students to pursue program options that link work and learning, we will continue to lose far too many young people along the path to graduation.”

In Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans, researchers argue that only 30 percent of young adults successfully complete a four-year degree program and that most jobs do not even require a bachelor’s. It also predicts that only a third of the anticipated 47 million jobs that will be created by 2018 will require an undergraduate or graduate degree. In addition, 30 percent of those jobs will require only an associate’s degree or some other post-secondary occupational credential.

Citing findings from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, the report says that many of these so-called “middle-skill” jobs include such occupations as electrician, construction manager, dental hygienist, and police officer. And while they may be less prestigious than teacher, journalist, social worker, many of those jobs offer significantly higher salaries. This is particularly true of jobs in the health care industry, which has added 500,000 jobs during the recession, and which the report predicts will continue to experience rapid growth.

In the past few years, many employers have begun to complain that young adults are not being adequately prepared to succeed in the 21st century work force. Pathways to Prosperity cites a 2006 report titled “Are They Ready to Work?” which found that half of the nation’s high school graduates were “deficient in such skills as oral and written communication, critical thinking and professionalism,” that employers seek. This is particularly true of low-income minority teens. Businesses are becoming increasingly reluctant to hire young people who have just a high school degree, which could lead to a shortage of qualified workers in a variety of industries, including non-residential construction and energy, health care and STEM fields. According to Pathways to Prosperity, the percentages of employed teens and young adults are at their lowest levels since the end of the Depression.

“In this unforgiving economy, successfully completing a post-secondary degree offers adults the best insurance that they will find work,” the report states. “Because the majority of young adults do not earn even an associate’s degree, we face an ever-rising population of less educated teens and young adults who are persistently disconnected from both education and employment.”

Currently, 70 percent of high school graduates enter college within two years but only 4 in 10 earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree by their mid-twenties. Only 56 percent earn a bachelor’s degree within six years and less than 30 percent of community college students finish their two-year degree within three years. Just 30 percent of African-Americans and fewer than 20 percent of Latinos earn an associate’s degree or higher by their mid-twenties. In addition, the nation has an extremely high high-school dropout rate with one million students leaving school each year before earning a diploma.

The reasons students drop out of either high school or collage are varied, the report says, but it can be largely attributed to the fact that “too many can’t see a clear, transparent connection between their program of study and tangible opportunities in the labor market.” It recommends that the United States develop a system based on European vocational models to provide work-based learning in the form of apprenticeships and internships, which “provide a structure to support the transition from adolescence to adulthood lacking for the majority of young people in the U.S.”

According to Schwartz: “Unless we are willing to provide more flexibility and choice in the last two years of high school, and more opportunities for students to pursue program options that link work and learning, we will continue to lose far too many young people along the path to graduation.”

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