College for All or College for Some?

Jeremy Ayers considers a recent education debate and concludes that our goal should be to provide equal opportunity for all students to access well-paying jobs.

Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI) reintroduced the Fast Track to College Act last month. Reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year, including in the Fast Track to College Act, could provide ripe opportunities for finding common ground among disparate groups to increase opportunity and outcomes for all American students. (AP/Caleb Jones)
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI) reintroduced the Fast Track to College Act last month. Reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year, including in the Fast Track to College Act, could provide ripe opportunities for finding common ground among disparate groups to increase opportunity and outcomes for all American students. (AP/Caleb Jones)

A new report from Harvard University, “Pathways to Prosperity,” made a big splash in the education community last week. It sparked an intense debate about whether we should be preparing all students for college or only some of them. The bottom line, however, is that we need to make multiple educational opportunities available to all students without creating separate but unequal educational tracks. Every student should have access to the well-paying jobs that increasingly require some form of postsecondary training. This is also key to keeping our country globally competitive. Federal policy has a role to play in making these goals a reality and improving outcomes for disadvantaged students in particular.

What the report says

The report claims that America focuses too narrowly on preparing all students to obtain a bachelor’s degree (“college for all”). Our schools should instead offer students multiple pathways during and beyond high school including rigorous career and technical training, career counseling, apprenticeship programs, work-based learning, and smoother routes to community college.

The report’s authors draw heavily from Europe and offer examples such as Linked Learning in California or High Schools that Work to claim that U.S. schools can provide career and technical education to students without sacrificing academic rigor. Most pointedly, the authors argue that a decade of college for all reform has failed to live up to its promise. They repeatedly cite that just less than 30 percent of American youth under the age of 30 hold a bachelor’s degree.

The report is written by two well-known figures in education reform—Ronald Ferguson and Robert B. Schwartz, former president of Achieve, Inc. Achieve is an organization dedicated to making a college-preparatory curriculum available to all students. Schwartz admits that over time he’s changed his mind about college for all. And of course, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praising the report at its release, a vigorous, sometimes heated discussion ensued in the education community about the merits of college for all versus college for some.

It bears looking at each side carefully to damper the shouting and to find a way forward.

College for all: Separate is unequal

Reformers on the college-for-all side usually remind the public how essential a college education is to an individual’s economic well-being. The gap between the income earned by those with a college degree and those with a high school diploma is large and growing, and almost 90 percent of the highest-paying and fastest-growing jobs require some postsecondary training.[1]

But the U.S. education system is not living up to its potential. College is becoming less affordable and the education "pipeline" from high school through college remains shockingly inefficient.[2] According to one study, for every 100 students who enter ninth grade, only 18 will complete any kind of postsecondary degree within six years of graduating from high school.[3] The most widely used estimates find that only one-fourth to one-third of students even graduate from high school prepared for the rigors of college—and that number drops dramatically for low-income and minority students.

Meanwhile, the United States lags behind other countries in educational outcomes. We currently place 18th out of 23 in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in high school graduation rates and 15th among OECD member nations in college completion.[4]

More students must graduate high school prepared for college if we’re going to remain competitive globally and make good on our promise to ensure even the most disadvantaged student has the opportunity for success. And schools should put all students on the path to college to avoid the inequity of separate but unequal tracks—even if those students decide not to go.

That’s the fairest and most efficient way to boost opportunity and outcomes according to the college-for-all camp.

College for some: Let’s get real—and relevant

Educators who work with students are usually the ones calling on reformers to be practical. It is simply implausible to assume all students will go to college, they say, and taking physics or European history may not be the best preparation for those students who will go directly into a job after high school. Motivation, engagement, and relevancy are the keys to making high school work, especially for students who struggle already with the basic curriculum.[5] Coursework tied to career opportunities or schools organized around career themes—sometimes called career academies—have shown to increase student motivation and even job earnings.

European education systems—including some of the highest-achieving countries in the world like Finland—offer multiple pathways in high school including tracks for those going on to college and those going on to work. While some nations seem to ensure equity better than others—the Harvard report acknowledges that Germany and Switzerland tend to get mostly poor and immigrant youth in the work track—high-flying systems work closely with students and families to help them make informed decisions about life after high school.

Further, in the past decade the United States has made significant improvements to career and technical education. One of the most comprehensive efforts, highlighted in the Harvard report, is the multiple pathways initiative in California. It’s a model aimed at improving high schools by pairing a college-preparatory curriculum with an industry theme while offering workplace exposure.[6]

Plus, a savvy high school teacher recently argued that our labor market needs workers with technical skills just as much as those with liberal arts degrees.

On the macrocosmic level, there isn’t enough demand in the market for every bachelor’s degree produced at a four-year college. This is particularly true of liberal arts degrees, as is evidenced by the difficulty faced even by graduates of top universities in finding employment. At the same time, there’s a shortage of workers who can fill high-skill manufacturing jobs that require industry-specific technical proficiency—for example, building airplanes, cars, and other large-scale machinery—upon which our 21st century economy is increasingly based.

So the college-for-some argument usually goes.

Middle ground

Debating the merits of college for all versus college for some may make for interesting discussions. But the debate neglects the fact that U.S. students are increasingly less competitive globally, particularly our poor and minority students.

In terms of sheer numbers, our economy cannot remain strong when two-thirds of our young people leave high school without the knowledge and skills they need to take the next step. It is time to raise the bar for everyone in every way possible. That may include making a college-preparatory curriculum the default for all yet allowing room for high-caliber career and technical education to support or complement that goal.

Multiple pathways may be a realistic and fair way of getting all high school students ready for college and work as long as there is one common set of rigorous standards for all students to master. And it may guard against inequity while acknowledging the reality that not all students will leave high school on the exact same path. For progressive education reform, the key is to optimize opportunity in multiple ways without creating separate but unequal educational tracks. And we should ensure that all students have access to the well-paying jobs that increasingly require some form of postsecondary training.

A way forward

Back in 2004 the Center for American Progress and Jobs for the Future jointly wrote about the high school to “college” pipeline. As the report pointed out, “It is time to reinvent the relationship between American high schools and postsecondary institutions so that every student has a chance to attend college and complete some kind of postsecondary credential (e.g., industry certificates, apprenticeships, Associate’s degrees, Bachelor’s degrees) by the age of 26.”

To achieve this goal the report recommends that policymakers support three “fast track to college alternatives” that provide high school students a leg up in their journey past graduation:

  • “An Academic Head Start on College” would give academically motivated students the option of accelerating their progress through high school and college and perhaps earning an associate’s degree at the same time as a high school diploma or within the next year.
  • “An Accelerated Career/Technical College” would move career/technical education to postsecondary institutions, giving career/technical students a head start on earning transferable college credits at the same time as they prepare for entry-level jobs.
  • And “A Gap Year/College in the Community” would give students a deliberately structured “gap year” in place of, rather than after, the traditional senior year. This option would include a combination of a half or full year of community service and a half or full year of work experience.

But regardless of the track students take, the goals would be to:

  • Increase the numbers of students who complete postsecondary credentials.
  • Reduce the time it takes them to do so.
  • Eliminate disparities.

How federal policymakers can help

Over the past decade federal policymakers have grown increasingly interested in the issue of improving the transition from high school to college. The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act was reauthorized in 2006 and made explicit the need for more career and technical education programs that combine real-world learning with academic rigor.

President Barack Obama also called on Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, this year in his 2011 State of the Union address. He cited the need to raise standards so that all students are college and career ready. And he has called on the country to increase the number of college graduates by 5 million by 2020.

Last month Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI) reintroduced the Fast Track to College Act, jointly sponsored by Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI), who plans to introduce the bill this month. Fast Track would establish or support dual-enrollment programs similar to those CAP has previously detailed including early college high schools that allow secondary school students to earn credit simultaneously toward a secondary school diploma and a postsecondary degree or credential.

The driving force behind federal education policy is boosting achievement and promoting equity. Reauthorizing ESEA this year, including in the Fast Track to College Act, could provide ripe opportunities for finding common ground among disparate groups to increase opportunity and outcomes for all American students.

Jeremy Ayers is the Senior Education Policy Analyst at American Progress.


[1]. America’s Dynamic Workforce: 2007 (Department of Labor, 2007).

[2]. Hilary Pennington, “Fast Track to College: Increasing Postsecondary Success for All Students” (Washington: Center for American Progress and the Institute for America’s Future, 2004).

[3]. National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, "Measuring Up 2004: The National Report Card on Higher Education" (2004).

[4]. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, "PISA 2006: Science Competencies for Tomorrow’s World" (2007).

[5]. National Research Council, Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students’ Motivation to Learn (Washington: The National Academies Press, 2004).

[6]. Eric Richmond, “Preparing Students for College and Career: California Multiple Pathways” (Washington: Alliance for Excellent Education, 2009).

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Jeremy Ayers

Associate Director, Federal Education Programs