Sunday, January 06, 2013

In Just Six Short Years

Note: I've been sitting on this post for almost two months because it never felt like it was done. I finally decided it was never going to be done so I might as well publish it in case there is some value in it somewhere for someone. These thoughts were initially spurred by this worth-your-time post by Clay Shirky, although these ideas have been percolating in my head for years.

My daughter is twelve years old. In just six short years she'll be graduating from high school and hopefully attending college.

Wait. Hang on a second.

In just six short years she'll be graduating from high school and . . .


College holds such a preeminent spot in the American education system. All the blue ribbon commissions, all the various standards movements, and all the politicians and pundits assume that college is the end goal of our education system. As a result, our K-12 system is almost maniacally focused on preparing kids for college. (In fairness, there are still some vocational education programs around, and we applaud dutifully when we announce that students are joining the military, but we mostly ignore those kids the rest of the time.)

Look, I teach at a high school that each year sends roughly 92% of our graduates on to a two or four-year college. We live in a community where college is the default assumption and, to be sure, that's worked really well for many of our students for a long time. But I'd like to delve a bit deeper. Roughly 92% of our graduates go on to two or four year colleges, but how many of them graduate and then use that degree for gainful employment? We don't have that data, so let me do a bit of assuming.

Here are the current statistics:

Time Magazine, October 2012

Now, our students have many advantages, including their socio-economic backgrounds and a pretty decent (by traditional standards) school system. So let's make the wildly optimistic guess that we significantly outperform the averages and 80% of them graduate (and use that degree for gainful employment). That means that roughly 70% of the students who start in our high school fall into this future-college-graduate category. That's pretty good. But it also means that 30% don't. That's 3 in 10. That means of the 2150 students currently at my high school, roughly 645 of them are not in that category.

Six hundred. Forty. Five.

What about them?

But even if we ignore the 645, that still leaves 1505 who are in that category. Here's an example of a statistic that we love to throw in the faces of our students:
Time Magazine, October 2012

"See, John, you have to go to college. Just look at those numbers."

Or this one:
Time Magazine, October 2012

That second one is used almost exclusively to promote a college education, which fascinates me because you could just as easily look at it as 65% of all jobs in 2020 won't require a bachelor's degree, and 35% won't require any college at all (so if you're one of the 645 above, you'll be okay).

As Richard Florida points out in The Great Reset:
There are two kinds of jobs that are growing: higher-paying knowledge, professional and creative jobs (everything from high-tech engineers and software developers to managers and doctors to graphic designers and entertainment lawyers) and lower-paying routine jobs in the service economy (food service workers, nurses' aides, janitors, home health care workers, and the like). Over the past three decades, the U.S. economy has added 28 million routine service jobs and 23 million knowledge, professional, and creative jobs, compared to just 1 million in manufacturing. Routine service jobs now compose the single biggest area of employment: 45 percent of jobs, 60 million plus in all. Creative jobs account for 31 percent, and working-class jobs for 23 percent. (p. 117, 8)
But even if you interpret those statistics as favorable to getting a college degree, both of these have some major assumptions built-in that deserve to be teased out a bit. (Also see this post by Larry Cuban.)

Assumption #1: The future will look like the past.

Again, as Richard Florida points out:
The share of the workforce employed in agriculture dropped from 41 percent in 1900 to 16 percent in 1945. (It's less than 2 percent today.) (p. 13)
Major changes can happen, and relatively quickly. I'm not questioning the veracity of the statistic that currently those with a bachelor's degree can expect to earn 77% more than those with only a high school diploma. But I am questioning whether it's the bachelor's degree that determines that. Which leads to the next assumption.

Assumption #2: The credentials of a college degree are necessary in order to sort our students for future employers (and, it's corollary, students can only learn the skills that provide that 77% differential in earnings in a formal, credentialed higher-education program)

College as we know it is a relatively young idea. I'm not an education historian, so I'm sure others with a deeper understanding might pick this apart, but from my perspective our current views on the role of college are somewhere around sixty years old (GI Bill), and really picked up steam about forty years ago (post Vietnam War era). The idea that a large number of students should (must) continue their formal education beyond high school, that a college degree is a given if you want to achieve middle class (or better) status, that the very idea of being an "educated" person requires you to be college educated is a fairly recent development. What if it was simply an accident of the time period? What if the last half of the twentieth century was an education anomaly?

Here's an idea. What if the bulk of that 77% differential is simply because the students that are likely to be successful in the world of work are also likely to be able to navigate themselves though a college program and manage to get a four-year degree? What if it's also because college graduates are more likely to be socio-economically advantaged to begin with, and that carries over into being successful in the world of work? What if employers have simply been using college as an easy sorting mechanism to screen applicants? If some or all of those are fairly true, then perhaps that 77% differential isn't primarily because of the education those students received in college.

Now, that's not to say that a lot of folks didn't learn a lot of valuable skills in college, but that leads to our next assumption.

Assumption #3: College (as we know and define it) is the best (or only) way to learn those skills.

Here comes the obligatory mention of MOOCs. Udacity. Coursera. EDX. (For a very thoughtful, detailed, critical and well-linked look at MOOCs, check out Audrey Watters' post.)
Time Magazine, October 2012

What's more important, the knowledge or the credential? Would a student who learns the skills they need through Coursera, but doesn't have the piece of paper from a degree-granting institution, still achieve that 77% differential? Would a student who could document their "coursework," combined with documenting their accomplishments (digital portfolio/resume/body of evidence) be able to convince an employer that they were just as qualified (or perhaps more qualified)?

Two arguments usually come up when I start ranting about this (with friends). First argument is, "But those online courses aren't very good." This brings to mind Clayton Christensen's Disrupting Class, where he talks about the pattern of innovation where initially the new product isn't as good, but meets a specific need, and eventually evolves into something that not only better meets the need, but is also better quality. I think we're in that transition phase right now. Udacity/Coursera/EDX may or may not be that good right now, but they are constantly (and fairly quickly) improving. At what point will they meet - and then surpass - the quality of a typical college course (which, as far as I can tell, is not quickly improving)? (Also check out these two posts by Keith Devlin, where he - like a good mathematician - points out that too many folks are ignoring the "Massive" in MOOC).

I then ask my friends to remember their best college course. I then ask them if they think an online course could duplicate that. For the most part, they say no. And I would agree. But then I ask them how many of their college courses were like that best class. The usual response can be counted on one hand. I then ask them about their typical college course, and whether they think that could be duplicated online. They usually try to change the subject. I then ask them about their worst college course. They then switch to the second argument: "But college is about so much more than the classes."

First, I find it interesting how quickly the argument moves away from the formal education aspect of college. It's now no longer about the education you receive in your classes, but the learning that takes place by being on your own (sort of) in a nominally educational environment with others your same age. Again, I wouldn't disagree that there's a whole lot of learning - both academic and non-academic - that goes on outside of formal classes in college. But I would suggest that perhaps our assumption that college is the only way/place that can happen is a bit myopic. (Plus, I don't have the numbers, but how many people actually get the "college experience" we all envision as part of that argument? Living on campus, not working - or at least not working very much, immersed in an intellectual melting pot exploring life's big questions. My guess is less than 25% of the college population.)

I think networked learning has the possibility to replicate (or actually improve on) much of the outside-of-class-but-still-academic learning that takes place in some college settings. I can also envision a different, but still similar, environment that doesn't require a college campus. What if students right out of high school gathered in an urban area, working for employers who believed that young people can (and should) learn and work simultaneously (check out this post for Harvard Business Review by Michael Schrage)? What if those employers also believed that formal learning and working was only part of life, and that their young employees should be heavily involved in the communities in which they lived? Would four (or more) years of that be valuable? Could it replicate (or improve upon) the college experience?  Especially when you take into account that the "students" would be earning money, not just spending it, and contributing to economy by producing (not just consuming), and not spending four years accumulating debt.

Time Magazine, October 2012
Time Magazine, October 2012

Assumption #4: Young people go to school for a while, maybe 12 years (high school diploma), 16 years (college degree), or maybe longer (post-graduate, medical or legal degree), then they go to work.

In our recent history we've seen this as a mostly binary choice, and one with a specific order. You're either going to school or you're working. And you go to school first (you learn), then you work. (Yes, obviously, lots and lots of folks have worked while they go to school, and even go back to school while they are working, but the paradigm has still primarily been learn, then work.) But does it have to be this way? Should it be this way?

Again, from Richard Florida:
The idea that school is the only, or even the main, source of education is a relatively recent development. We need to understand that classroom education is merely one phase of a continuous process of learning, discovery, and engagement that can occur anywhere and anytime. We need a learning system that fuels, rather than squelches, our collective creativity. (p. 183)

What if, instead, we learn for a while (perhaps a long while), then work for a while, then learn some more, then work in a different capacity, and then continue that pattern several times over our lifetime? And even that pattern is too binary; you could certainly be learning and working at the same time (as in my urban example above). Who says that it has to be learn, then work? If you were devising a system from scratch, is that how you would design it? If you were designing your life from scratch, is that how you would want it to look?

We live in interesting times. I'm not at all sure what's going to happen next. I'm in the interesting position of wondering if college is the best option for many of our students, and for my daughter in particular, all while I've saved up four years worth of tuition in a 529 plan. I don't really know, but I think it's past time for us to start questioning some of the assumptions that our K-12 systems are resting upon.

My daughter is twelve years old. In just six short years she'll be graduating from high school and . . .


I want to be very clear that I'm not suggesting college is horrible, or the wrong choice for a lot of students. I'm just questioning the assumption that it is the best choice for all students, or that it should be the end-goal of K-12 education, or even that it's the best system for advanced learning in a networked world.


  1. Fantastic post. Thanks for taking the time to write this. My oldest is 11, and I too wonder if college will remain the best option for him.

  2. Karl- I so appreciate your thoughts. Connects me to this video I came upon a bit ago:

    There's something to be said for learning outside the contained walls of classrooms. Where are we teaching students to be well mannered, well rounded 'people' that will succeed in the world? Those 'real life' skills that students need are so getting brushed aside as we continue to assess, reasses skills that sometimes don't connect to what they need in the real world.

    1. The more I think about it, the more I think our vocab is part of the problem. A "classroom" implies so many things, some of them good, but some not so much.

  3. You've got six years…I have less than three. And I've been having almost the exact same thoughts and questions running through my brain as well. The stats on the kids in our districts are very similar; the vast majority go to college right after graduation. The idea that there would be any other path for kids who have the grades to go to college is unheard of. (Tess is still getting grief about not taking the PSATs as a sophomore this year.) But my kids have known for a long time that they will have options, even though they may not be as "clear" as college. And I don't mean vocational paths (though those are fine, too.) I mean different paths to professional success and accreditation.

    But here's the thing: are our schools preparing kids to forge their own path? To be "entrepreneurial learners" as John Seely Brown calls them, kids who are "Constantly looking around them, all the time, for new ways and new resources to learn new things"? Because if college is only one path, the other ones are forged by self-direction, organization, wonder, creation, sharing, inquiry…all those things that you and I need in order to be successful learners in our lives. Kids who don't go to college to get a degree need to be able to design their own learning since they won't get a course list and syllabus handed to them. They need to have skills and literacies that will allow them to learn what they need to learn, create art (as Seth Godin says) with that learning, share that learning, and "earn their influence" (as Stephen Downes says). We teaching them how to do that?

    So, there's always been that "third path" somewhere between getting a job and going to college, but now, I think it's going to start to scale in some interesting ways. That's why I really don't care if my kids are "college ready" when they leave high school as long as they are "learning ready," able to put together their own path to success.

    1. To answer your question, no. At least not my school and most of the schools I've been to or heard of. On the other hand, I don't really know how to do that myself, or how to help 14-18 year olds (at my school, anyway) get interested and engaged in that pursuit. So I certainly don't pretend to have the "answers."

      And I agree about being "learning ready," I'm just not sure how to get from here to there.

  4. Honestly it's rather funny: I want to be an entrepreneur, but my parents want me to go to university and get a professional degree, like Medicine or Law before I do anything. I tell them that by the time I get out of med school most of my youth would be gone, but they are pretty much convinced that as an entrepreneur I'd never amount to much. Perhaps they're right, but this is pretty much the mindset of lots of people. College seems to be the safe choice that leads to you making money. Some people who don't go to college might end up making a lot more like Steve Jobs, but those people are still in the minorty. Thus, risk aversion.
    Still, it is rather sad. Entrepreneurs are the ones who innovate and change things :/

    1. I think college is seen very much as the "safe" choice. And I'll admit that I see it that way for my daughter as well, which is why I've socked away all that college tuition money even when I'm not sure that's going to be what's best for her.

  5. A couple thoughts, my district has almost the opposite numbers of students going to college right after high school. They aren't looking for alternate learning experiences, they are looking for jobs to survive. Second, my two eldest daughters who are in college had no choice. The profession they want to work in requires a degree and a certificate. Yes, they both want to be teachers.

    I will continue to push, prod, exhort, and beg my students to go to college. Their options are much more limited than the average student and for most the only two paths to a better life are continuing some kind of education after high school or go into the military.

    1. Yes, the profession they want to work in requires a degree and a certificate. But do they need to require that degree and certificate (or alternatively, does that certificate have to be obtained from a degree-granting institution)? I just think our over-reliance on one model of credentialing is getting in the way of so many things.

    2. Amen! See Wendell Berry's essays on being an "expert".

  6. Thanks Karl for posting this. I'm motivated by this same question with my 4 and 1 year old. While I want to see everyone have the opportunity to go to college, the idea that everyone should is likely one cause of the crowding, and tuition hikes. Not to mention the dilution of the degree's influence (e.g. Bachelors degrees are becoming the baseline expectation for employers as opposed to a High School Diploma).

  7. Powerful post Karl! As I am 14 years away from my oldest son entering college, I have time to see the choice become less dichotomous; even though I'm sure he will be 18 before I know it. I am more thinking about kindergarten and elementary school in 1.5 years. Additionally, I am thinking about how secondary (7-12) education needs to transform with the growing spread of technology and school choice. How many of the ideas/points that you bring up could be applied or scaled to K-12? For example, a high school student might pursue an apprenticeship (for credit) at a media company all the while taking a couple of courses on-line (with a group of peers from around the world) and attending class at their home school three days a week for a total of 12-16 hours. We certainly have an "educational cliff" to address, but it is an interesting time to be in education and to hopefully be a part of reinventing it. Thanks for sharing.


    1. I agree that secondary education can (and should) also change, but it is a bit more problematic than college for both transportation and custodial reasons. It might not be such a problem in New York City, or Chicago, or San Francisco, but here in Colorado we don't have good public transportation options. So getting kids to apprentice/intern is a more difficult proposition. And, of course, we're still seen as a primary day-care provider, and sending students out into the community is a tough sell to folks who see danger on every corner.

  8. I have a 13 year old daughter and I am constantly asking myself the same questions. This year she started a non profit dog rescue and she has learned more from that experience than she could ever learn from a high school/college course (we homeschool) and she is externally motivated by the community/the dogs etc. I can't imagine her ever wanting to give her business to someone else while she studies full time and luckily I am hoping she wont need to. Although of course she wants to be a vet and the vet schools are very I go back and forth wondering if I am doing her a disservice by going the road less travelled (but far more fulfilling and in line with her natural development and passion). I am grateful that she can do online and community college courses at the same time and hopefully be competitive when the time comes to apply for a vet school. It is scary as a parent to think you might be hampering your child's future by not going the tradition route, but ultimately what she will be doing will be an expression of who she is and what she is passionate about which will (hopefully) prove to bring her the happiest and most meaningful life experience.

  9. I completely agree that we have lost sight of most of the other post-school alternatives. Schools are so focused on helping kids get through the system and go to university that we have become blind to the other options we should be offering. I also blogged a few ideas about this recently...

  10. This is a great conversation. Lots to think about for young parents. I have two kids in post-secondary now and I do worry about the relevance of that formal education in balance with the cost of it. I don't think that right now there are very many other options though.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post.