The Power of Assuming All Need College

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 19, 2007; 10:12 AM

We are in the midst of a heated national debate over whether or not high schools should try to prepare all students for college. I say yes, but I acknowledge that the no side has a good argument: Since at least a third of high schoolers don't want to go to college, why not train them for the job market instead?

The suggestion makes sense, until you look carefully at what it takes to get a good job after high school these days. Those of us who support the college-for-all approach are marking up the latest "Diplomas Count" report from Education Week -- "Ready for What? Preparing Students for College, Careers, and Life After High School" available at -- and waving it in front of our friends on the college-not-for-all side. It shows that the latest data are running in our favor.

The Ed Week team, led by Editorial Projects in Education Research Center director Christopher B. Swanson and managing editor for special projects Lynn Olson, sum up their conclusion in one sentence: "Today's high school graduates are entering a world in which they'll need at least some college to gain access to decent-paying careers."

Ed Week combined two national data bases to show the educations and salaries of workers in five different job zones, defined by education, training and experience requirements. In Job Zone 3, where the median annual income is $35,672 nationally, 63 percent of job holders -- such as electricians, funeral directors and legal secretaries -- have some college education, including 26 percent who have a bachelor's degree. The next step up, Job Zone 4 (such as teachers, accountants and detectives) with a median annual income of $50,552, has 89 percent of job holders with some college, including 68 percent with a bachelor's degree. Job Zone 5, including lawyers, engineers and school psychologists, has a median income of $59,113 and only 7 percent without some college or a bachelor's degree.

In zone 2, median income $24,461, which includes retail sales clerks, sheet metal works and customer service representatives, 46 percent of job holders have some college, including 12 percent with bachelor's degrees. In zone 1, median income $12,638, including waiters, cashiers and taxi drivers, 31 percent have some college including 7 percent with bachelor's degrees.

Career and technical education programs in high school "can reduce high school dropout rates and increase short- and medium-term earnings for students," the report says. But if high schools are going to have any chance of preparing students for decent jobs in a market where college-level skills are increasingly necessary, they have to increase academic rigor, forge stronger links to local labor markets and high-demand, high-skill jobs and make better connections to postsecondary education "so that students have the option of going directly into the workplace or continuing with their formal education," the report says.

In other words, a high school that does not do everything it can to prepare for college those students who do not want to go to college is putting them at risk of spending the rest of their lives unable to support themselves and their families adequately and depriving them of the tools they need to go on to college if, as often happens with maturing adolescents, they change their minds.

Much of this debate is distorted, I think, by the century-old notion that readying a student for college means they must take calculus, Shakespeare, physics, European history and French 5. The vast majority of college graduates today never had a high school schedule like that. The Ed Week reports lists qualities that employers seek in high school graduates they might hire that are, not surprisingly, exactly the same traits that will guarantee your admission to college and strengthen your chances of graduating: "Able to work comfortably with people from other cultures, solve problems creatively, write and speak well, think in a multidisciplinary way, and evaluate information critically," as well as "be punctual, dependable, and industrious."

Wouldn't it be wonderful if our high schools focused on building all those habits and skills in every student? One of the reasons I harp so regularly on the importance of encouraging even average and below-average students to take at least one college-level course in high school is that those courses -- with long final exams that demand critical thinking -- are the best tools high schools have for encouraging good writing, creative problem solving and dependable work habits. They work for both the students who are going to college and the students who are not. If high schools gave everyone that kind of education, we would not have to demand, as many members of the college-not-for-all crowd want to do, that 15-year-old sophomores make the life-changing decision to be on the college track, or not.

One of the great things about Ed Week (bias alert: I am on its board of directors) is that every issue not only has lots of interesting information, but something that makes readers like me mad, and forces us to think. In this report, the role of agent provocateur is played by James E. Rosenbaum, professor of sociology, education and social policy and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

Rosenbaum knows his stuff and has many good ideas. He wants high school vocational courses to put more emphasis on soft skills, such as punctuality and politeness, handling conflicts, communicating key information to colleagues and supervisors, analyzing work tasks and problem solving. He suggests employers make regular visits to schools so they can motivate students and critique the vocational courses. But he seems to have a blind spot about the power of big dreams when talking to teenagers.

He cites an Educational Testing Service study suggesting that only about 40 percent of society's jobs require what he calls "college skills," even if, as the Ed Week job zone data show, many people in those jobs have been to college. I think Rosenbaum's summary distorts the complex June 2006 ETS report, "High School Reform and Work: Facing Labor Market Realities," by Paul E. Barton. But I will leave that argument for another time and get to the parts of Rosenbaum's piece that vexed me.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company