American education must be equipped with diverse tools fit for students’ diverse aspirations.


Most American elementary schoolers are accustomed to answering, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But some time during their youth—usually by late middle or early high school—the question “what do you want to be?” gives way to “where do you want to go?”

The change in emphasis, from preparation for building a life to preparation for attending a college, is embedded deep in American education policy. High school curricula, testing, and standards emphasize academic achievement with an eye toward college admission. Postsecondary funding flows almost exclusively to colleges and universities.

But the rosy “college-for-all” vision of young Americans parading off to college campuses and from there to lucrative careers has given way to the reality of widespread dropout, burdensome loans, and degrees unwanted in the labor market. An emerging consensus now recognizes that not all pathways to prosperity can or should travel through a quad. Bachelor’s degrees should be valuable, but not the only marketable credential for high school graduates to pursue.

American policymakers are following suit—at least rhetorically. Presidential nominees in the last two election cycles have stressed the importance of noncollege pathways, especially apprenticeships. Hillary Clinton ran on a corporate tax credit for hiring apprentices. President Trump committed nearly $300 million to new apprenticeship programs, and President Biden has allotted as much to registered apprenticeships.

But apprenticeships are no panacea, and their repeated incantation betrays a failure of imagination. American apprenticeship programs have existed for nearly a century; valuable as they continue to be, they represent but one piece of the education puzzle. Whatever consensus there might be on college-for-all’s failures, there is as yet no consensus on what should replace it—much less how to get there.

“Apprenticeships are no panacea, and their repeated incantation betrays a failure of imagination.”

American education will not be solved at once with a 3,000-page bill. Instead, it demands a mix of reforms that address from different angles the various interlocking pieces of a complex system and that support approaches responsive to diverse aptitudes, needs, and aspirations. If American education is to take seriously the task of equipping students for their lives’ vocations—for “what they want to be,” not merely “where they want to go”—then American education and education policymaking must also be equipped with a different set of tools.

The project of retooling will require experimentation and effort along a few different dimensions. That must include, of course, curricula and the content of students’ educations. But it should not be limited to the traditional classroom, and instead recognize instruction beyond the school that nevertheless falls within the education system’s purview. Next, experimentation must encompass the incentives to which educators and educational institutions respond: not only funding, but also certification, accreditation, and accountability metrics. Existing incentive structures stress narrow academic achievement; without reform, they pose a barrier to institutional change. Finally, experimentation must address the dynamic between the education system and the labor market. A stark division between work and learning, between employers and schools, can only undermine an education oriented toward productive contribution thereafter.

While experimentation will doubtless look different depending on the level of education concerned, it should nevertheless share common ends. An education system beyond college-for-all must look beyond college for its goals. It should elevate long-term life outcomes over near-term academic results. It should likewise look beyond the cloistered campus for its model educational institutions. Schools must be better integrated into the communities, institutions, and markets they’re preparing students to enter. Such an approach necessarily means that different students will be prepared differently for different ends. Cultivating such a pluralism of ends must not compromise the equal dignity afforded to each student.

“Whatever consensus there might be on college-for-all’s failures, there is as yet no consensus on what should replace it—much less how to get there.”

This symposium offers a roadmap for education reform and experimentation. It convenes policy experts and practitioners starting from points across the political spectrum and approaching reform from different angles. Their essays delineate and describe the levers available to policymakers to retool the American education system at its different levels—from high school to community college and higher education to the labor market. Some highlight case studies of promising models; others outline philosophical approaches. All recommend concrete policy actions.

The symposium begins at the high school level. Ashley Rogers Berner of Johns Hopkins University outlines a broad set of reforms to foster pluralism, stressing the need for distinctive school communities, content-rich examinations, and robust career and technical education (CTE) offerings. Michael Q. McShane of EdChoice explores the spectrum of policy reforms that enable work-focused education within and without the public school system: from course-access policies to education savings accounts. H.D. Chambers, superintendent of the Alief Independent School District in Houston, proposes alternative incentive and accountability structures for secondary school systems seeking to partner with employers and offer career-focused education.

Next, the symposium approaches the post-secondary education system, beginning with community colleges. Harvard University’s Robert Schwartz explores the emerging demand for non-degree, skills-based credentials and highlights successful models that states’ community college systems can adopt to meet it. Mike Reeser, Chancellor of Texas State Technical College, describes a funding and accountability model for postsecondary education providers that is linked to concrete labor market outcomes and spurs curricular innovations adaptive to workforce needs. Heather Reynolds, managing director of Notre Dame’s Lab for Economic Opportunities, argues for a comprehensive approach and evidence-based funding model to improve the outcomes of the least-fortunate students underserved by the post-secondary education system. Finally, American Compass’s Oren Cass tackles the student loan crisis and outlines a permanent solution that ends the higher education subsidy bonanza and aligns institutional incentives while assisting the least-fortunate debtors.

Looking beyond traditional education institutions, the symposium explores the role of the labor market, how employers both propagate college-for-all and offer a path beyond it. American Compass’s Chris Griswold considers the options available to policymakers to stem employers’ excessive demand for college degrees in employment, including public-sector employment policies and an outright ban on unnecessary degree requirements. Amy Simon, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, outlines an approach for renewing the federal government’s sclerotic apprenticeship programs to better address workers’ needs and employer demand. Oren Cass offers a signature policy proposal, The Workforce Training Grant, to redirect higher education subsidies toward employer-created and -led noncollege pathways.

“American education will not be solved at once with a 3,000-page bill. Instead, it demands a mix of reforms that address from different angles the various interlocking pieces of a complex system and that support approaches responsive to diverse aptitudes, needs, and aspirations.”

Alongside these essays, we will publish additional data from the Failing on Purpose Survey. Its findings complicate the popular narrative about life after high school, in which young Americans leave home to attend college, earn degrees, and get launched into careers. In reality, fewer than 15% of young Americans have that idealized experience. The median American in her mid-to-late twenties has dropped out of college, lives close to home, and works a “job” rather than a career.

Yet the values of that idealized minority dominate our national conversation about American education. Whereas they prefer pathways to “the best possible career options, far from home,” everyone else prefers ones that offer “good career options close to home.” However modest the latter pathways may seem, American education will require a different set of tools to build them.

Wells King
Wells King is the former research director at American Compass.
Recommended Reading
A Guide to College-for-All

The college-for-all model fails most Americans in favor of a “Fortunate Fifth” who proceed smoothly from high school to college to career.

What Are Public Schools For?

According to a new American Compass survey, parents have a different answer than activists and policymakers do, writes Oren Cass.

‘College for All’ Is Broken. Let’s Embrace Opportunity Pluralism Instead.

Bruno Manno features a recent American Compass survey on higher education in a discussion of the failures of the “college-for-all” model.