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Posted at 10:30 PM ET, 11/02/2011

Grab college major or lose career

I like movies and television programs about schools. I sometimes roam cable channels looking for old favorites. Those shows will usually have a character who gives a student a warm look and says, “You can be anything you want to be.”

That is a motto for America. It defines the high expectations we have for our kids. It celebrates our stubborn pioneer belief that hard work can overcome any obstacle.

I use it in a more argumentative way, when needling scholars who say that 15-year-olds who don’t want to go to college should be enrolled in vocational courses to ready them for the job market. I think that is too early. Those kids can do anything, so teach them the reading, math and time-management skills they will need for college or work and don’t lock them into a choice until they finish high school.

That sounds good, at least to me. But two new studies by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, suggest that those of us in the you-can-be-whatever-you-want-to-be crowd may be jeopardizing the futures of recent high school graduates who need to choose a career path right now.

Andrew S. Rosen’s new book, “Change.edu: Rebooting for the New Talent Economy,” notes that colleges at every level are trying to cover every possible career inclination, and failing at it. The Columbia studies say this is a particularly serious flaw for new community college students. They dance to the sweet music of all things possible and dabble in several subjects so they never make the decisions that lead to college completion.

Using a sample of 62,218 first-time community college students in Washington state, researchers Davis Jenkins and Madeline Joy Weiss noted that students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, on average less likely to graduate, were also “less likely than higher SES students to enter a concentration, which we define as taking and passing at least three courses in a single field of study.”

They were slowed by remedial courses, but even when they had a chance to pick majors, they weren’t quick and often did not see what choices would help them get jobs. The only majors with good career prospects that low-income students chose in large numbers were in nursing and other health fields.

In a separate paper, Jenkins offered suggestions for accelerating student entry into and completion of useful programs of study. The colleges, he said, should promote more strongly the worth of starting a program right away and point out that college is not a leisurely sampling of a thousand-dish smorgasbord, as people like me sometimes indicate.

“Community colleges offer a wide array of programs but typically provide little guidance to help students choose and successfully enter a program of study,” Jenkins said. “The analysis shows that it is essential for students to enter a program of study as soon as possible. Students who do not enter a program within a year of enrollment are far less likely to ever enter a program and therefore less likely to earn a credential.”

What can colleges do about that? Jenkins suggested college officials spend more time in high schools. They should tell students about community college programs, enroll them in a college course or two and if they need it, give them remedial courses in reading, writing and math tied to a promise of a two-year degree, better job prospects and a four-year college if they want it.

This is not the same as shoving them into a vocational program when they are 15. It is in a way freshman orientation, the standard beginning to college, but provided while they are still in high school and have time to think and adapt to the new rules. When they are old enough to make the big decisions, they will understand the consequences of not deciding and avoid wandering on to a sidetrack that goes nowhere.

By  |  10:30 PM ET, 11/02/2011

 
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