Alternative Pathways–the “Career” Part of College/Career Readiness

It is axiomatic in most discussions of post-secondary readiness that a bachelor’s degree is the ticket to a prosperous, successful career. But does that make it true for every student in every circumstance? Three articles in the new issue of American Educator, the professional journal of the American Federation of Teachers, make a strong case that it’s time to rethink the BA-for-all axiom in light of the potential harm that results from it, such as:

“(1) the idealization of the BA degree, which results in ignoring excellent options like an applied associate’s degree in mechanical design technology, graphic communication technologies, dental hygiene, or computer networking; (2) the promise of college access, which results in high school students seeing their slightly older peers go off to college, but not seeing the trouble many have once on campus; and (3) the cultivation of stigma-free remediation, which results in many ‘college’ students not even knowing that they are in remedial, noncredit courses.”

One need not to agree with every element of this indictment, quoted from “Beyond One-Size-Fits-All College Dreams” by James Rosenbaum et al., to admit the authors have a point worth exploring. And they don’t offer a critique without remedies. They identify some simple cures for the ills they have diagnosed: “realizing that many good jobs do not require a BA, fully informing students about their options, and, as students select goals, honestly telling them what it will take to succeed.” Along the way, they also challenge assumptions that BAs guarantee higher earnings, and they point to other dimensions as well in which non-BA career pathways may be more rewarding, such as autonomy, skill variety, a say in decisions, workload, safety, and stress.

Accompanying this lead article are sidebars that elaborate on the harm done by failing to inform students of their alternatives to the four-year college degree–and failing to focus efforts on making career-preparation courses relevant and rigorous. As Grover J. Whitehurst says in “Higher Education and the Economy,” a “growing body of research suggests that policymakers should pay more attention to the link between job opportunities and what people know and can do, rather than focusing on the blunt instrument of years of schooling or degrees obtained.”

You’ll find all this food for thought and more in the Fall 2010 issue of American Educator at this link: http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/index.cfm.