Does “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree” Hint at Tracking?  Not in the Smallest Way

Usually, when my colleagues Kathy Kersten, John Hinderaker, or I write about Center of the American Experiment’s major project, Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree, we focus on soon-to-be high school graduates who may not be certain they want to seek a B.A. or B.S.  Or we focus on young people who may already have attended a four-year institution, but only for a spell, as things didn’t work out and they dropped out.  And who may now find themselves unemployed, or underemployed, and quite likely in debt.  In both instances, Kathy, John, and I talk about other excellent educational routes to solid middle-class careers and lives such as apprenticeships, one- and two-year certificate programs, and job training in the military.

But there is another group of young Americans, who may or may not still be in high school that we haven’t discussed much:  Disproportionately low-income and minority young men and women who are flailing, with no real interest in pursuing any kind of postsecondary education at all.  That’s the roughly defined group I’m thinking about, with the help of an essay, “Education and the ‘Success Sequence,’” by a superb scholar and longtime friend of mine, Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution in Washington.  While Dr. Haskins is on the northern side of three score and ten, you should know he’s a Marine.  I note this as frequently as I can as I once described him as a “former” Marine, for which he informed me sternly that “once a Marine, always a Marine.”  I’ve been making public amends ever since.

Here is a passage from his essay, which can be found in a very helpful anthology, Education for Upward Mobility, edited by Michael J. Petrilli of the Fordham Institute (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

Can the [high] schools play a role in helping all young people, especially young minority males, increase their work rates?  Most schools focus their efforts on helping students learn basic skills and prepare themselves for education at two- or four-year colleges.  For those concerned primarily with students from poor and low-income families, as I am here, the focus should be on placing a greater emphasis on the work and career goals of students who seem unlikely to attend a postsecondary institution.  In addition, schools should make a special effort to help disadvantaged students who would have difficulty in a four-year institution because of their poor academic preparation.

Haskins goes on to acknowledge that there are students from “poor families,” needless to say, “who are highly qualified,” for “elite colleges, and that they should be “identified early and helped.”  This is particularly the case when it comes to selecting where to continue their education and in winning scholarships, two matters “about which most low-income parents would have difficulty giving good advice.”  But Haskins quickly follows, again rightly, by saying that high schools should also “provide an intense focus on two-year colleges, including or especially the certificate programs most of them offer, for disadvantaged students who are not well-qualified for four-year institutions.”

All these recommendations make sense.  But the main point to be made is that Dr. Haskins, in these few sentences, seems to talk more explicitly than is usually the case about young people, often minority, who are “mediocre students” and who may not be “well-qualified” for a four-year college.  He’s on-target in doing so, not that many other academics write similarly out of fear of giving offense, as well as possibly being viewed as endorsing a return to tracking of an unwelcomed kind.  I mention this because I am aware that some people might – I underline might – see Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree as hinting at tracking, when it does nothing of the sort.

A challenge for the project is making it clear we will never rain on anyone’s hopes if a young (or not-so-young) person dreams of earning a four-year degree and maybe more.  Congratulations and great luck, I say to them all.  But this doesn’t subtract from the importance of informing wide swaths of people, including parents, about the virtues of alternatives to four-year degrees – doing so, it’s critical to add, while recognizing a lot of remembered bad history of shunting many low-income and minority boys and girls into dead-end, non-academic tracks.

I have been told once or twice I’m overly sensitive to having the project possibly misunderstood in some quarters as dampening educational opportunities when its goals are the exact opposite.  I hope those who say my concerns are overdone are wholly right and I’m thoroughly wrong, as there’s no question that Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree has the potential of doing great things for very large numbers of Minnesotans.  And for our economy, too.