Educational and Career Advice and a Barely Changing Score

In the grand scheme of things – and even in much smaller schemes – two decades are not much more than a blip.  So, I don’t want to read too much into an article, published in 1997, that makes many of the same points about how young people choose between four-year colleges and other postsecondary institutions, aided and perhaps pressured by their parents, as does American Experiment’s current multi-year project, Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree: Good News for Students, Parents, and Employers.  Still, the consistency is interesting.

The article, “The Gatekeepers,” was written by Kenneth Gray, a professor of education at Penn State, and appeared in the January 1997 issue of Techniques.  Gray’s main argument, as with ours, is that a B.A. or B.S. is far from the only route to solid middle-class (and upper-middle-class) careers, as millions of men and women achieve them, often in technical fields, via A.A. degrees, one-year and two-year certificate programs, apprenticeships, first-rate job training in the military, and other educational paths.

Tori Roloff, a terrific Center intern from Eden Prairie and undergraduate at the University of Virginia, alerted me to Professor Gray, whose work I did not know, but am pleased I now do.  Here are few particularly interesting excerpts, occasionally annotated from his succinctly titled paper, “The Gatekeepers.”

  • “Now that school districts have begun to implement [School to Careers] programs around the country . . . it is becoming clear that we may have failed to win over the most important constituent group: parents of school-age children. . . . [W]e have not paid enough attention to the core problem: Parents who believe their children have only one way to win are not interested in educational options.”
  • “Ninety-five percent of high school sophomores surveyed for a recent [U.S] Education Department study said they would go directly to college after high school, and 85 percent aspired to at least a four-year degree. . . . The career goals of most of the teen in the [study] were unrealistic and probably uninformed.”
  • “A four-year college education is getting more and more expensive each year. The costs have outpaced the rate of inflation.  Between 1980 and 1991, college costs rose 55 percent at private colleges and 32 percent at public colleges, while family income fell 2 percent during the same period. . . . Loans comprised 55 percent of all financial aid in 1994-95 – up from 20 percent in 1974.”
  • “A college dropout faced with a significant loan payment, or a college graduate who ends up working for minimum wage, is quite likely to be more than a little discouraged. And their frustration extends to parents, who may agonize over what went wrong.”

Personal note: My first real job out of college paid the minimum wage of $1.85 at the time.  Given that I had graduated an esteemed liberal arts college, my father had difficulty wondering how that could be the case.  I did, too.

  • “The fastest-growing piece of the high-skill, high-wage technical workplace is occupations that will require an associate’s degree.”
  • “The challenge is to get parents – and students, for that matter – to understand that labor market advantage for high-skill, high-wage employment comes not from education for the sake of a degree but education that is focused on a career goal. If the goal is a place in the middle-class, postsecondary plans should focus on obtaining real skills.  Parents should be reminded of the old-fashioned advice that the key to success is to select an occupation in which one has aptitude and interest, and then focus on preparing to make oneself marketable.”
  • “There are, of course, many reasons parents want their children to go to college that have nothing to do with careers and future earnings.  Among them is a belief that a child’s acceptance into a four-year college, particularly if it is a prestigious college, has become the most visible sign of parental effectiveness in the teenage years.”
  • “Many educators feel uncomfortable telling teens the odds associated with Plan A [‘The Baccalaureate Game’] because they don’t want to discourage them from pursuing a particular pathway. Faced with this dilemma, many educators at both the secondary and postsecondary levels have opted for the neutral or ‘benign neglect’ approach, encouraging everyone one to try Plan A and then letting higher education/labor market Darwinism sort out winners and losers.  In this approach, losers outnumber winners and the process is costly, both in human and financial terms.”

A concluding American Experiment note:  At the risk of suggesting that my colleagues and I are taking a feckless “benign neglect” approach, it is not the business of Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree to dissuade anyone from seeking a four-year degree if that is their dream and plan.  To the extent it’s ever an appropriate assignment, it’s not ours, as “Congratulations” and “Good Luck” is what we say and mean it.  Rather, a main goal of this major Center project is making certain that students and their parents – before making a very big decision – have a solid grasp of the several, not lone, routes to good jobs, good careers, and good lives in Minnesota and elsewhere in our country.