I have no desire to punish students or deprive them of opportunity. Quite the contrary. My aim is to stop pretending that high school or college students with very low basic skills have a real shot of earning a college degree—so that they might follow an alternative path that will lead to success. A college graduate will generally outearn a high school graduate, to be sure. But a worker with technical skills will outearn a high school or college dropout with no such skills. That’s the true choice facing many students.
Furthermore, for kids facing the toughest challenges of poverty, it makes sense to think about opportunity over multiple generations. College might catapult prepared low-income kids into the middle class in one fell swoop, but using high-quality career and technical education to give low-income youngsters who are not ready for college a foothold on the ladder to success is a victory as well. If they can escape poverty and all the social ills that come with it, their children have a significantly better shot at the college path. After all, that’s how upward mobility in America has generally worked: Not in one bounce but slowly and surely over decades.
Happily, this sort of common sense is starting to re-enter the conversation (thanks, in part, to the persistence of the folks at Harvard’s Pathways to Prosperity initiative, who called in 2011 for a broader approach to education reform, one that includes high-quality career technical education). In a very important recent Politico piece, Stephanie Simon shows how lawmakers, especially in red states, are starting to worry that the “college for all” ideology is doing material harm to students. Asking all students to pass algebra II makes a ton of sense if you expect all of them to go to college. But when you are willing to acknowledge that that’s a fool’s errand, you start to see such mandates as barriers to opportunity—the opportunity to pursue career and technical programs that are likely to produce better long-term outcomes for young people. (Read more.)