“The American system for preparing young people to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults is clearly badly broken” according to the Pathways to Prosperity study by the in 20 Harvard Graduate School of Education. Only 56 percent of college students complete four-year degrees within six years. Only 29 percent of those who start two-year degrees finish them within three years.
“Failure to aggressively overcome this challenge will surely erode the fabric of our society” concludes the report. “The American Dream rests on the promise of economic opportunity, with a middle class lifestyle for those willing to work for it. Yet for the millions of young Americans entering dulthood lacking access to marketable skills, the American Dream may be just an illusion, unlikely ever to come within their grasp. If we fail to better prepare current and future teens and young adults, their frustration over scarce and inferior opportunities is likely to grow, along with economic inequality. The quality of their lives will be lower, the costs that they impose on society will be higher, and many of their potential contributions to society will go unrealized. This is a troubling prospect for any society and almost certainly a recipe for national decline.
“As President Obama has said, we now need every young American not only to complete high school, but to obtain a post-secondary credential or degree with currency in the labor market. Most Americans now seem to have gotten the message that a high school education is no longer sufficient to secure a path to the middle class.
“As we have noted, college enrollment has been steadily rising over the past decade. The problem is completion: nearly half of those who enroll leave without a degree. While the economic returns to “some college”—a category no other country uses in calculating higher education outcomes—are greater than those for young people with only a high school diploma, they vary widely depending on family background. Because of family connections and social networks, a middle-class student dropping out of a selective college is much more likely to find his way into a decent job than a working class student dropping out of a less selective urban university.
“However, a young person of whatever background who leaves community college after completing a one-year occupational certificate program—also counted in our “some college” category—may earn more than many students who complete a four-year degree program.
“As the recent OECD reports suggest, other countries manage to equip a much larger fraction of their young people with occupationally relevant skills and credentials by their early twenties. Consequently, these young people experience a much smoother transition into adulthood, without the bumps and bruises so many of our young are now experiencing. The lessons from Europe strongly suggest that well-developed, high quality vocational education programs provide excellent pathways for many young people to enter the adult work force. But these programs also advance a broader pedagogical hypothesis: that from late adolescence onward, most young people learn best in structured programs that combine work and learning, and where learning is contextual and applied. Ironically, this pedagogical approach has been widely applied in the training of our highest status professionals in the U.S., where clinical practice (a form of apprenticeship) is an essential component in the preparation of doctors, architects, and (increasingly) teachers.
“When it comes to teenagers, however, we Americans seem to think they will learn best by sitting all day in classrooms. If they have not mastered basic literacy and numeracy skills by the time they enter high school, the answer in many schools is to give them double blocks of English and math. Northern European educators, by contrast, believe that academic skills are best developed through embedding them in the presentation of complex workplace problems that students learn to solve in the course of their part-time schooling. These educators also focus on helping students understand underlying theory –not only how things work, but why. This philosophy isn’t simply about learning: it’s also about how to enable young people to make a successful transition to working life. What is most striking about the best European vocational systems is the investment, social as well as financial, that society makes in supporting this transition. Employers and educators together see their role as not only developing the next generation of workers, but also as helping young people make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. If we could develop an American strategy to engage educators and employers in a more collaborative approach to the education and training of the next generation of workers, it would surely produce important social as well as economic returns on investment. Let us embark on this vital work.
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