Vocational Education Offers Students Another Path to Career Success
Despite a decades-long push for education reform—an important political issue that transcends party lines—the harsh reality is that the current one-size-fits-all U.S. education system is failing to prepare millions of young adults for career success. That's the conclusion of a recently published study by the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. The two-year Pathways to Prosperity Project suggests that the U.S. should take cues from selected European education models by integrating skills and occupational training at the high school level.
Four-year colleges aren't for everyone
The current single-path educational system emphasizes preparing high school students to attend a four-year college. However, only 30 percent of young adults go on to earn a bachelor's degree, according to the research. Advocates of innovative education argue that the road to success should be much less linear and that education reform should include a greater emphasis on career-driven alternatives.
"What I fear is the continuing problem of too many kids dropping by the wayside and the other problem of kids going into debt, and going into college but not completing with a degree or certificate," said Robert Schwartz, the project head and academic dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "Almost everybody can cite some kid who marched off to college because it was the only socially legitimate thing to do but had no real interest."
The study also cites growing evidence of a "skills gap," a widening divide in which many of America's youth lack the skills and work ethic necessary for many jobs that pay middle-class wages. Along with this skills gap, there has recently been a drastic increase in unemployment rates among young people. In fact, the percentage of teens and young adults who have jobs is at a low that the U.S. hasn't seen since the Great Depression -- a grim statistic that doesn't bode well for the future of America's international leadership, researchers say.
A multi-path approach to reform
The report recommends a multi-path approach, dubbed the "comprehensive pathways network," which encompasses three progressive elements: embracing reform that incorporates multiple pathways from high school to adulthood, involving employers in youth education and career development and creating a new social pact between young people and society.
The recommendation of providing multiple options, rather than the conventional view of directing all students toward a four-year college, has drawn controversy. The main criticism is that students who opt to explore vocational training too early might limit their future career choices.
Researchers for the study recommend that all major occupations be outlined at the start of high school, with more career counseling available to young people. The study contends that students are more likely to be actively engaged in their course choices with a conscious choice of career direction, preventing boredom and potentially curbing drop-outs. Further, students should also be given the ability to change their career direction if they so choose. Employers would also play an active role in the process, with students having access to education partnerships like paid internships or apprenticeships.
The report cites various success stories in Europe with similar youth-to-adulthood educational systems. Countries like Germany, Finland and Denmark have demonstrated marked success in academics blended with vocational training.
The social compact element of the plan is designed to send students a strong message that society has a stake in their success, and that young people have a true choice about how to shape their future.
"America will not be able to resolve the crisis of unemployment, or the problem of losing the international race for more college graduates, by ignoring the large proportion of learners who achieve at high levels in applied learning settings," said Dr. Gail Mellow, President, LaGuardia Community College. "This report's clear-eyed examination of what the country needs and how those needs can be met is a welcome dose of realism. Following its lead could lead to more, not fewer, students earning degrees and career credentials."