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The sweet spot on free college: Why 14 is the new 12

Not everyone needs a college degree, but a high school diploma isn’t enough these days, either.

A high school diploma is no longer enough to launch a sustainable career, but 14 years of schooling may just be the educational sweet spot. (iStock)

Pretend you’re a politician running for office. You’re in a town hall meeting in front of a camera surrounded by an audience of typical voters assembled to test your fitness to lead. An earnest citizen rises and asks: Are you in favor of free college?

You’re ready for this one.

You know that most of your audience would agree that a high school diploma is no longer enough to launch a sustainable career. Only about 20 percent of high school graduates can get a good job without additional education, and those are mostly young men who can land a spot in the declining blue-collar economy. You also know that as many as half of the people in the room and watching on television believe that college is not necessary for everyone. They are sure their children are deserving and qualified for a four-year degree, but the children of many other people are definitely not.

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You’re ready to respond, but you need a new way to describe the solution. Here’s what you say: 14 is the new 12!

In other words, 14 years of education ought to be the expectation for all students, rather than 12 years. Students would have the freedom to make choices about how and where to take these additional years of education. They could study online or at community colleges, four-year private or public colleges, for-profit colleges or in job-training programs. The education is what’s important, not the format or the provider.

Advocating that 14 is the new 12 recognizes that a high school diploma is no longer enough for gainful employment but that not everybody needs a four-year degree. At the same time, it doesn’t block anyone with the talent and drive to get a bachelor’s degree from obtaining one.

Some people would argue that we don’t need free college. They would say we should just bring vocational education back to high school. But 14 as the new 12 avoids that sticky debate. A major reason high school vocational education was eliminated starting in the early 1980s was because it encouraged race, class and gender tracking. Male students of color from low-income families were invariably tracked into vocational programs, and hardly anyone else ever was. Even a scent of race, class or gender bias will set off alarms with a large share of your audience.

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You would need to add some bells and whistles to close the deal with voters and to get the policy wonks on board. For starters, anything you propose needs a credible mechanism to end the current “pay and pray” system of college funding. Right now, we pray for the best from a college education and write a big check. We have little insight into the return on investment of college programs. Any new approach must require transparency and accountability regarding the cost, graduation rates and employment effects of every college program.

Diversifying learning for children must be included in this new approach, as well as earlier exposure to applied learning and career paths. All students would engage in applied learning, beginning in middle school. If all students take it, none is being tracked into it. All students would move on to an expansion in applied curriculums, structured work experience and high school internships. These would be connected to focused career pathways in college.

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You still need to tip your hat to the bachelor’s degree because it is the aspirational gold standard in U.S. education. For those who correctly point out that bachelor’s degrees disproportionately go to affluent whites and that minorities and students from lower-income families are increasingly stuck in underfunded community colleges, you may need to add more funding to encourage strong transfer policy. In the end, the system you are trying to create has multiple educational and career pathways with carefully posted on-ramps and offramps, no dead ends and no absolute barriers to the BA.

Free college sounds like an unwarranted giveaway to most people. They picture the government sending good money after bad, chasing runaway college costs. Flip the script. Tell people that you want 14 as the new 12 — an accountable approach to making sure all students have a clear path to where they want to go.

Anthony P. Carnevale is director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.