Increasing Educational Alternatives is the Opposite of Tracking

futureThere seems to be a movement in American education to call young students “scholars,” with the salutation more prevalent in schools with high proportions of minority and low-incomes boys and girls.  The idea and aim being that kids should start, as early as possible, envisioning themselves as eventually attending and graduating college, and working diligently every day to get there.

Question:  How might this benign news fit with American Experiment’s new project aimed at encouraging more young people – if that is their choice – to consider educational options other than four-year collegiate degrees as routes to good jobs and solid middle-class careers?  Pathways such as apprenticeships in the construction industry or manufacturing, or two-year certificate programs in health care or I.T., or shorter certificate programs in other fields, or targeted job training in the military.

The first and most important answer is a pledge on the Center’s part:  At no time will this new initiative ever seek to dissuade anyone from pursuing the type of post-secondary training, whatever it might be, they have dreamt about, perhaps for a long time.  For no other reason, this is the case since trying to do so would be no less offensive and wrong than futile – and it would be plenty futile.   But beyond, this is a required guarantee given that American Experiment leaders working on this project have profited in potent and multiple ways from our own four-year (not to mention terminal) degrees?  To suggest we are grudging when it comes to similar opportunities and victories for others would be the definition of selfish hypocrisy.

Since the project in question has yet to be officially announced (stay tuned), it still goes by a tentative name, the wordy “Overlooked Educational Routes to Thriving Careers: An American Experiment Project to Help Young Minnesotans Win Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree.”  It’s premised on the fact that while many colleges and universities are terrific places, many young people really don’t want to spend at least four years in any of them, yet nevertheless believe they must if they are to succeed occupationally.  Often feeling pressured to enroll despite their doubts, they often wind up dropping out – and in a simultaneous blow, in debt.

This is bad news for everyone involved, including the broader economy and society.  But young people of all backgrounds need to know that four-year degrees are not the only conducive paths to good lives, as there are effective educational alternatives, especially for people who enjoy working with their hands.  Vigorously making the case for these options and increasing the number of Minnesotans taking advantage of them is the project’s mission.

Yet having said all of this, it must be understood that many people – for understandable reasons historically – are likely to view the effort not as a matter of expanding opportunities, as intended, but rather as a means of limiting them.  This is the case since memories and passed-down stories of shunting poor kids and kids of color into academically weak vocational tracks in junior high and senior high schools across the country remain vivid.

One might add here that low-income and minority parents are by no means the only people alert to the fundamental unfairness and waste of human potential of that history and great numbers of other parents and adults (and students) wouldn’t be the least bit bashful about bashing any recurring hint of it, be that hint real or simply imagined.

The good news, though, is that “Overlooked Educational Routes to Thriving Careers” will have everything to do with enlarging possibilities, not constraining them, again for all concerned.  It will help students and their parents know more than they otherwise might about what’s available educationally and professionally.  If, after careful study, young men and women choose less-travelled roads, we will congratulate and wish them good luck.  If they choose more conventional ones, we will extend the very same hopes for good lives.

Making certain that this assurance is well understood in all quarters is one of the project’s first and most critical imperatives.

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder of American Experiment and project director for “Overlooked Educational Routes to Thriving Careers.”