This commentary originally appeared in Teachers College Record Online onI apologize for its length, but it took some space to tease out the many issues in this debate.
After decades of effort to undo the rigid system of curricular tracking in the American high school and after the more recent emergence of a “college-for-all” ideology among policy makers and educators, we are witnessing the rise of a strong counter-voice, skeptical about the individual and societal economic value of channeling all young people into post-secondary education.
The skeptics are a diverse group. Many are economists who point to trends in the labor market that reveal a number of good and growing jobs that require some post-secondary training but not a four-year degree. Some are educators (including, but not limited to, Career and Technical Education interest groups) who emphasize the variability of students’ interests and aptitudes, not all of which find fulfillment in the college curriculum. And some are social commentators who blend the economic and educational argument with reflection on the value of direct contact with the physical world, something increasingly remote in our information age. Though these skeptics come from a range of ideological backgrounds, they share a concern that in pushing postsecondary education for everyone, we perpetuate a myth that personal fulfillment and economic security can only be gained by pursuing a college degree.
This debate is an important one and is of interest to me because it directly affects the kinds of students I’ve been concerned with my entire professional life: those who come from less-than-privileged backgrounds and aren’t on the fast track to college. It also catches my attention because a book of mine, The Mind at Work, is sometimes used in the argument against college-for-all.
The Mind at Work is the result of a study of the cognitive demands of physical work, from waitressing and styling hair to carpentry and welding. Our society makes sharp and weighty distinctions—distinctions embodied in curricular tracking—between white collar and blue-collar occupations, between brain work and hand work. But what I demonstrate is the degree to which physical work involves the development of a knowledge base, the application of concept and abstraction, problem solving and troubleshooting, aesthetic consideration and reflection. Hand and brain are cognitively connected.
From these findings I raise questions about our standard definitions of intelligence, the social class biases in those definitions, and their negative effects on education, the organization of work, and America’s political and social dynamics.
Those who use The Mind at Work to champion some type of occupational education over a bachelor’s degree zero in on a core claim of the book: that physical work is cognitively rich, and it is class bias that blinds us from honoring that richness. But I go to some length to tease out the historical and social factors surrounding this core premise, particularly as it plays out in the division between the vocational and the academic course of study. I want to raise these issues again here, and, with the benefit of the time that has passed since the book’s publication, elaborate on them, for the issues can become simplified in the debate between advocates of college-for-all and their skeptics.
It is absolutely true—and anyone who teaches and, for that matter, any parent, knows it—that some young people are just not drawn to the kinds of activities that comprise the typical academic course of study, no matter how well executed. Yet, some of these students are engaged by the topics and tasks found in the vocational curriculum. What is also true is that many of these pursuits are cognitively demanding and can be a source of intellectual growth. Furthermore, they can lead to good jobs that are relatively secure in a fluid global economy. The electrician’s and the chef’s work cannot be outsourced.
The problem is that historically the vocational curriculum itself has not adequately honored the rich intellectual content of work. As the authors of an overview of high school Voc Ed (the earlier name of CTE) from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education put it: vocational education “emphasized job-specific skills to the almost complete exclusion of theoretical content.” And the general education courses—English, history, mathematics—that vocational students took were typically dumbed-down and unimaginative. CTE reforms over the past few decades have gone some way toward changing this state of affairs, but the overall results have been uneven.
The huge question then is this: Is a particular vocationally oriented program built on the cognitive content of work, and does it provide a strong education in the literacy and mathematics, the history and economics, the science and ethics that can emerge from the world of work? Few of the economists I’ve read who advocate an expansion of Career and Technical Education address the educational (versus job training) aspects of their proposals.
Another point that the skeptics make is the troubling record of student success in post-secondary education. Do we really want to urge more students into a system that graduates about 50-60% of those who enter it? The reasons students leave are many: from poor academic preparation to unclear goals to problems with finances and personal life. They leave without a certificate or degree that will help them in the job market, and, depending on the college, they might incur significant debt along the way. The skeptics are right about the unsatisfactory record of student success. But their solution seems to fault students more than the colleges they attend and affords no other option but to redirect students who aren’t thriving into job-training programs.
But we need to be careful about painting this broad group of students with a single brush stroke. Some are strongly motivated but because of poor education, family disruption, residential mobility, or a host of reasons are not academically prepared. The question is what kind of course work and services does the college have to help them. (And it should be noted that many vocational programs recommended by the skeptics would require the same level of academic remediation.) Some students are unsure about their future, are experimenting—and in my experience, it’s not easy to determine in advance who will find their way. We also know that a significant number of students leave college temporarily or permanently for non-academic reasons: finances, child care, job loss. Some of these cases could be addressed with financial aid or other resources and social services. So while I take the skeptics’ point about the poor record of student success and agree that college is not for everyone and that a fulfilling life can be had without it, it is a simplistic solution to funnel everyone who is not thriving into a vocational program.
Such a solution also smacks of injustice. Right at the point in our society when college is being encouraged for a wide sweep of our citizenry, we have the emergence of a restrictive counterforce that is seen by some as an attempt to protect privilege, or, at the least, as an ignorance of social history. Research by sociologists Jennie Brand and Yu Xie demonstrates that those least likely to attend college because of social class position—and thus, on average, having a less privileged education—are the ones who gain the most economically. For such populations, going to college can also provide a measure of social and cultural capital. A long history of exclusion must be addressed before countering broad access to higher education.
All the above raises the basic question: What is the purpose of education? Both the college-for-all advocates and the skeptics justify their positions on economic grounds, but another element in the college-for-all argument is that in addition to enhancing economic mobility, going to college has important intellectual, cultural, and civic benefits as well. These different perspectives on the purpose of college play into—and are shaped by—a long standing tension in American higher education: a conflict between the goal of cultivating intellectual growth and liberal culture versus the goal of preparing students for occupation and practical life. I don’t have the space to adequately discuss the issue of purpose other than to say that I think this tension—like the divide between the academic and vocational—restricts the conversation we should be having. How can we enhance the liberal studies possibilities in a vocational curriculum and enliven and broaden the academic course of study through engagement with the world beyond the classroom?
A third option between college and work has emerged in the last few years: Linked Learning, which is also known by its former name, Multiple Pathways. There are various incarnations of Linked Learning, but a common one is a relatively small school that is theme-based and offers a strong academic curriculum for all students; the students then have options to branch off toward a career, or occupational certification, or a two- or four-year degree.
The college-for-all advocates would applaud the emphasis on a strong academic core but worry that this system could devolve into a new form of tracking. And the college-for-all skeptics, I suspect, would applaud the presence of a vocational pathway, though worry that anti-vocational biases would still stigmatize the option. These are legitimate concerns, and many advocates of the Linked Learning approach acknowledge them. The advocates also admit the significant challenges facing such a reform, from faculty and curriculum development to the ancillary academic and social services needed to provide a quality “pre-pathways” education for all students. Still, this is a promising alternative, and some schools are demonstrating success with it.
Though this college versus work debate can slip into a reductive either/or polemic, it does raise to awareness a number of important issues, ones not only central to education but as well to the economy, the meaning of work, and democratic life. There is the skyrocketing cost of college and the poor record of retention and graduation in higher education. There is the disconnect between the current labor market and the politically popular rhetoric of “educating our way into the new economy.” And there is the significant commitment of financial and human resources that will be needed to make college-for-all a reality.
On a broader scale there is the purpose of education in a free society. We must consider the issue of the variability of human interests and talents and the class-based bias toward entire categories of knowledge and activity—a bias institutionalized in the structure of the American high school. It is important, then, to rethink the academic-vocational divide itself and its post-secondary cousin, the liberal ideal versus the vocational mission of the college. And finally we need to keep in mind that the college-for-all versus work debate takes place within a history of inequality and that the resolution of the debate will involve not only educational and economic issues but civic and moral ones as well.