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Great Work by an Intern on Her Summer Vacation

I had an exceptional intern this summer, Tori Roloff, who worked with me on two projects: American Experiment’s multi-year initiative, “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree”; and a related book I’m writing, tentatively titled Educational Roads Less Taken: How America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees Limits Both Careers and Economic Growth.  Tori is a sophomore at the University of Virginia and an alumnus of Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis.  Rather than give her simple assignments such as looking up this or counting that, I asked her to research several complex issues, six in all, and then write a short essay about each one.  How did she do?  Quite impressively, as witness excerpts from three of her pieces below.

The first question I asked Tori to investigate was how and why there is a norm “out there” that just about everyone should seek a four-year degree when I’ve heard only one person in my entire life ever say this, and that was almost fifty years ago?  “[T]here may be some people,” she wrote,

who truly think that everyone should pursue a bachelor’s degree – or at least come close to believing so – and explicitly share this viewpoint with others.  However, those individuals are in the minority and, as a result, they are not likely the main reason that students feel pressure to pursue one.  Instead, young Americans feel the strongest pressure indirectly from a variety of sources.  One source may be confusion that often arises when national leaders use vague terms such as “higher education” and “college” to discuss postsecondary education and the social and private benefits it reaps.  Furthermore, young people may feel pressure from their parents who want “the best” for them, but draw conclusions on misleading averages.  Students may even put excessive pressure on themselves after they have seen these statistics. . . . For the most part, politicians, parents, and scholars do not intend to claim almost everyone should seek a four-year degree, yet understandably, that is often the perception that young people gather.  Ergo, although it may not be entirely accurate to say that there is an explicit, spoken, cultural norm that “just about every young American should pursue a bachelor’s degree,” there is still undue and powerful pressure on just about every young American to seek one.

On another occasion, I asked her for a faster-than-fast sense of vocational education’s historical place in the United States.  “By the middle of the 1980s,” she wrote,

the decline of vocational education in high schools was apparent.  A 1996 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report found that “in 1982, 33.7 percent of all high school graduates had a concentration in a vocational program area, but by 1992 the group of concentrators had declined to 24.4 percent of all graduates.  In addition, the same report found that the average number of credits taken in vocational fields at the secondary level was decreasing.  Together, these findings suggested an uncertain future for vocational education in high schools.  Some attributed the apparent decline to factors such as increased high school graduation requirements, more individuals wishing to pursue higher education, and a growing stigma associated with technical training; as Kenneth Gray notes, “It [took] courage for a talented student to enroll in vocational education.”  To combat this decrease in participation, Congress passed the Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act in 1984.

And on another occasion, I asked her to think about a particularly intricate question: whether young people who opt for something other than a four-year degree will wind up with smaller chances of marrying someone who does, in fact, have a B.A. or B.S.  As well as similar matters about eventual circles of friends.  Drawing on scholarly studies, Tori concluded in part:

There are at least two reasons why the individual lacking a bachelor’s degree should not necessarily worry.  First, the existing correlation between earning potential and educational homogamy [look it up] may work in his favor.  Take my example from the beginning of this paper – the individual who chose to pursue an associate’s degree in a vocational field rather than a bachelor’s degree in history.  If this individual has a higher earning potential as a result of his choice, he may have a better chance of marrying a well-educated spouse than he would have if he received a four-year degree.  Moreover, the existence of cognitive homogamy may also work in this man’s favor.  Although promoted by the postsecondary system, cognitive homogamy exists independent of educational homogamy.  Since one’s cognitive ability is not affected by which postsecondary education route he chooses, his chances of marrying a capable intelligent individual do not necessarily change because of his choice.

Immediately following this passage, she adds a critical, “On the other hand . . . . ,” further suggesting the quality of her analysis.

Tori Roloff contributed significantly to the Center’s work this summer, for which I’m thankful and thought you should know.

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