A pulse check on the college-for-all approach
Americans’ confidence in the higher education system is dropping, according to a recent Gallup poll. Amid rising tuition costs, college admissions scandals, and billionaire dropouts flaunting their lack of degrees, it’s easy to understand why.
But despite growing skepticism, an analysis of Gallup data from the past 45 years reveals a pretty stable belief in the importance of a college education, suggesting that although some people recognize flaws in the system, they still view college as key to upward mobility. And recently, the difference in median wages between high school and college graduates increased to a glaring $23,000 per year.
Nonetheless, earning gaps can vary greatly by field, degree type, gender, race, and even personality. Given roughly 40% of undergraduates leave without completing their degree, college isn’t necessarily risk-free.
Conversely, a U.S. Department of Education report notes that people with occupational credentials are actually slightly more likely to be employed than those with academic credentials—and significantly more likely to have a job that ties back to their field of study. Moreover, for many, pursuing their passions might outweigh the allure of a prestigious degree, a corner office, or an executive salary.
What does this mean for the K-12 system? Although emphasizing college preparedness is important given the payoffs of higher education, schools must also deploy resources that introduce students to alternative pathways. This might also mean redesigning postsecondary planning to prioritize career exploration. Schools could help students find career goals that fit their strengths and interests first and then tie everything back to an appropriate postsecondary pathway—a “college-if-necessary” approach.
Schools intend to showcase a greater range of postsecondary options, but support gaps persist
Encouragingly, our K-12 Career & College Readiness Benchmark Report indicates progress in this area. Data collected from over 200 K-12 leaders showed a stronger emphasis than ever on “exposing students to a greater range of postsecondary options” through the 2022-23 school year, with 41% percent of respondents identifying it as one of their top priorities. And overall, districts reported improvement between 2022 to 2023 in their support of alternative postsecondary options.
Despite shifting priorities, the gap in support between college and noncollege pathways remains persistent. Looking at the raw data, regardless of location and size, districts consistently ranked their support systems for college higher than programs for other postsecondary options.
If you went through school when the universal goal was college, it’s probably easy to imagine how only 44% of districts are providing as much support for alternative pathways as college degrees. Educators have firsthand experience within higher education, and K-12 has rallied behind the “college-for-all” call for years. In changing times, the 44% statistic is concerning not because of the overemphasis on college, but rather the underemphasis on alternative postsecondary options.
Although it’s important to help every student believe that college can be a reality for them— especially those from communities that face higher barriers to entry—schools must ensure that their enthusiasm for college doesn’t position it as the only path to a fulfilling life. Trade and technical training, apprenticeships, entrepreneurship, military training, and even taking a gap year should be positioned as equally worthwhile if they suit students’ career interests.
The consequences of a college-for-all culture are already apparent, with vocational programs facing image problems and labor shortages while colleges grapple with concerning dropout rates. To combat the stigmatization of noncollege pathways, it is not enough to merely provide information and resources for these options—they must be on par with college resources.
By fostering equal support for all postsecondary paths, schools can prevent students from enrolling in college out of pressure and despite having financial reservations or passions outside of academia. They can also help fight the stigma felt by students choosing career-focused pathways. In fact, emphasizing careers in K-12 can even help college-going students make academic decisions that align with their long-term career goals. In the long run, such changes will not only create more inclusive learning opportunities, but will also foster more diverse talent pipelines for the local and global communities that school districts serve.
For more on the state of postsecondary preparation in 2023, read the K-12 Career & College Readiness Benchmark Report.