The percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds who complete their degree is only slightly more than 40 percent. The completion rate has been declining for a number of years. This decline in completions is especially alarming considering the increased need for skilled, qualified workers in advanced manufacturing and technical fields. An obvious question is, “Why?”
Students may not complete their degree for a number of reasons. If they arrive in college and are not adequately prepared for the academic rigor, they may become discouraged, lack confidence and simply give up. Many students today juggle work, family demands and other outside pressures which compete with the student’s ability to study, attend classes and focus on academics. Of course, finances may also affect a decision to continue one’s education, or leave school and work full time.
In a recent article from the Pathways to Prosperity Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education, the authors suggest that a major reason students drop out of school is that too many can’t see a clear, transparent connection between their program of study and the tangible opportunities, which exist in the labor market.
Parents and schools are failing our young people, not because we are indifferent but because we have constructed narrow pathways to success. Too often parents and teachers have been intent on forcing everyone through the traditional pathway that leads to a 4-year degree. While we were pushing and shoving our young people through this narrowly constricted corridor, the labor market transformed to demand more “high tech” jobs in mechatronics. Students became discouraged, demotivated and hardened against what seemed to them to be useless information they would never use in real life outside of a dull classroom.
I remember my oldest son’s senior year in high school. He had recently been accepted into a 4-year college program to study computer graphic design and was just coasting through his last few weeks of school. One night at dinner he informed me he got an “F” on a calculus exam. I remember our very heated discussion that ensued and his insistence that calculus was a “meaningless waste of time” that he would never use in real life.
Fast forwarding, today he is 30 years old and works for a Web-design, multimedia corporation headquartered in Germany. Recently he shared with me the latest project he’s working on involving complex computer applications he was designing which could track the number of “hits” visitors registered when they opened a Web page. The “hits” could later be analyzed and traced back to consumer products the visitor might be interested in purchasing. This computer application is an advertisers’ dream-come-true.
He reminded me of the heated conversation we had during his senior year about the “useless” calculus class he was required to attend. You may have guessed by now. Yes, he is using calculus and algebraic principles to help solve and design computer applications in today’s global market.
Developing more relevant pathways of study and then assisting students to connect their program of study with future job opportunities and success will help increase completion rates. It’s time to widen our study and career pathways, and recognize that students are diverse. One size does not fit all. Everyone will not be successful in a 4-year program and everyone need not enter a 4-year degree program.
However, most everyone will need some type of postsecondary training or education to secure a good job that pays a living wage in the 21st century. For example, a certificate in electrical maintenance can often be obtained in six months from many community colleges. This certificate may help a high school graduate land a good job which pays for health benefits and additional college coursework leading toward a 2- or 4-year degree.
Tennessee is one of six Pathways to Prosperity states currently collaborating with the Harvard Graduate School of Education seeking to ensure that more youth complete high school and attain a postsecondary credential with currency in the labor market.
I recently attended a regional meeting in Chattanooga consisting of elected officials, school board leaders, teachers, college leaders and members of the Tennessee Department of Education to discuss how we can engage with employers to provide sustainable learning opportunities for students, advice on curriculum and share knowledge about the skills needed in the workplace which I believe can help increase postsecondary completions.
The labor market has changed and employers now demand more technical skills from their workers in order to compete globally. We need to rid ourselves of myths about our 21st century labor market and realize there are good-paying jobs and career paths in advanced manufacturing, robotics, computer technology and mechatronics.
To succeed, we’ll need to “widen” the corridor when guiding students through their career pathway and realize “one size” does not fit all.