From College-for-All to Opportunity Pluralism
The “college-for-all” educational model sees education as a conveyor belt that moves young people from elementary to middle to high school to a college degree and—finally—to a job. “High school to college to work arose about 50 years ago,” writes Ryan Craig, managing partner at University Ventures, “and became gospel only 25 years ago.”
Americans came to believe that a degree was the preferred, almost certain, pathway to upward financial mobility—the “surest ticket to the middle class,” in President Barack Obama’s formulation. Policymakers committed trillions of dollars to support this approach. Employers made the degree the default credential for hiring. And many benefits were associated with receiving a degree—for example, better health, higher levels of employment, and greater income and long-term wealth.
But American attitudes have begun shifting dramatically in the past few years, and the college degree has lost its shine. Many Americans, including young people, want other educational pathways to opportunity. And civic entrepreneurs in communities are leading the way in creating these pathways. The result is a new approach, opportunity pluralism, that focuses on providing young people with not only the knowledge, but also the relationships, they need to pursue a range of successful careers.
Recent polling data underscores how quickly American views and preferences have changed.
A 2022 Purpose of Education Index survey by Populace reports that ensuring “students are prepared to enroll in a college” dropped from Americans’ 10th highest priority (out of 57) for K–12 education in 2019 to 47th in 2022. Priority one is students “developing practical skills”—only one in four (26%) think they do—followed by “problem solve and make decisions,” “demonstrate character,” and “demonstrate basic reading, writing, and arithmetic.”
Four national surveys of Gen Z high schoolers conducted between May 2020 and January 2022 show a collapse in enthusiasm for college. In January 2022, around half (51%) said they plan to attend a four-year college, down 20 percentage points from a high of 71% in May 2020. Nearly one-third preferred post-high school educational experiences of two years or less rather than a four-year college experience.
American Compass reports that more than 8-in-10 parents (85%) “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that there should be “more educational options available for my child,” with strong support for non-college career pathways after high school. Foremost, parents preferred a three-year apprenticeship after high school leading to a “valuable credential and a well-paying job” over free college.
A Gallup survey reports that 7-in-10 Americans believe that employers should hire job candidates based on skills and experience instead of a college degree, though fewer than half say their employers do so. And a strong majority of employers (68%) and Gen Z (58%) agree that organizations should hire individuals from non-degree pathways.
Strikingly, while people have changed their own views, most don’t realize how widespread the rethinking has been. In the Populace survey of priorities, respondents were also asked what they thought the society’s priorities are: college preparation was their own 47th priority, but they perceived that society ranked it as the third highest.
One reason that Americans are changing their minds is that, to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, the facts have changed. “[T]he economic benefits of college may be diminishing,” according to a Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis study. It shows that the college income premium has fallen for recent college graduates while the wealth premium has fallen among cohorts born after 1940. In fact, for non-white heads of households born in the 1980s, the wealth premium cannot be distinguished from zero. This is true also for those with postgraduate degrees.
The college-for-all model should give way to an approach that expands pathways to opportunity. This is occurring in states and communities across the country under the banner of career pathways programs, which immerse young people in education, training, and work by connecting them with local employers. They often incorporate personal and occupational support services, including job placement, and come in different forms, including apprenticeships and internships; career and technical education; dual enrollment in high school and postsecondary education; career academies; boot camps for learning specific skills; and staffing, placement, and other support services for those seeking jobs. Finally, they offer the crucially important opportunity to build the social capital of strong relationships with adult mentors from all walks of life.
Programs are created in “top-down” and “bottom-up” ways. The former includes statewide programs created by governors and legislators from both political parties like Delaware Pathways by Democrat Jack Markell and Tennessee’s Drive to 55 Alliance by Republican Bill Haslam. Similar programs exist in politically diverse states like California, Colorado, Texas, and Indiana.
Examples of “bottom-up” programs between K–12 schools, employers, and civic partners include 3DE Schools in Atlanta; YouthForce NOLA in New Orleans, Washington D.C.’s CityWorks D.C.; and Cristo Rey’s 38 Catholic high schools in 24 states. And organizations like Pathways to Prosperity Network, P-Tech Schools, and Linked Learning Alliance form regional or local partnerships that provide advice and practical assistance to those creating pathways programs.
Career pathways programs have five common features:
- An academic curriculum linked with labor market needs, leading to a recognized credential and decent income;
- Career exposure and work, including engagement with and supervision by adults working in the relevant fields;
- Advisors who help participants navigate the many questions and issues they confront, ensuring they complete the program;
- A written civic compact among employers, trade associations and community partners; and
- Supportive local, state, and federal policies that make these programs possible.
These programs emphasize two important elements that lay the foundation for lifelong success: knowledge and relationships. Knowledge is what most educational programs focus on. And to be sure, teaching young people what they need to know to set off on a productive career is a vital element of opportunity pluralism. But as the old adage goes, it is not only what you know but also who you know. What distinguishes effective pathways programs is their ability to equip students with not only knowledge that pays, but also relationships that are priceless.
On a community level, recent studies by Harvard economist and Opportunity Insights Director Raj Chetty and colleagues show that cross-class relationships like those fostered by mentorships play a vital role in boosting upward mobility and expanding opportunity. It is not the relationships themselves that create opportunity. It is the downstream effects that the mentorships have on shaping young people’s aspirations and behavior.
Additional evidence comes from the U.S. Administration for Children and Families’ Pathways to Work Evidence Clearinghouse. Examining over 8,000 studies that identified 221 pathway interventions, it found that 38% of the interventions “improved outcomes in at least one domain of interest.”
Finally, studying the link between high school career experiences and adult career outcomes in eight countries, the international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development concluded that “…secondary school students who explore, experience, and think about their futures in work frequently encounter lower levels of unemployment, receive higher wages, and are happier in their careers as adults.”
These programs provide long-term benefits to participants, communities, and society beyond the immediate success of someone getting a good job. They foster an occupational identity and vocational self that assist young people in achieving other life goals. They also create faster and cheaper ways to prepare individuals for jobs. Finally, they cultivate the connections and bonds that build on the dynamism and innovation nurtured by local initiatives and institutions of civil society.
Policymakers who want to increase the upward mobility of young people, foster the personal agency and other tools they need for human flourishing, and support the institutions of civil society should create and support career pathway programs.