Four-year college doesn’t fit all

Beyond One-Size-Fits-All College Dreams: Alternative Pathways to Desirable Careers (pdf) in the new American Educator argues that students need realistic advice about their chances of college success. Low achievers should aim for vocational certificates rather than bachelor’s degrees, argue authors James E. Rosenbaum, Jennifer L. Stephan and Janet E. Rosenbaum

The vast majority of high school students plan to attend college — and believe that a bachelor’s degree all but guarantees them a high-paying job. What many of them don’t know is that those who are not well prepared are not likely to graduate. They also don’t realize that plenty of career-focused certificates and associate’s degrees lead to satisfying careers that pay just as well as, and sometimes better than, careers that require a bachelor’s degree. If detailed information on the broad array of higher education and career options were made available to them, students would have more incentive to work hard in high school and a better chance of achieving their dreams.

In a 2004 survey, 89 percent of graduating seniors planned to earn a bachelor’s degree, 6.5 percent wanted an AA, 3.5 percent had no plans and only 1 percent said they would not seek a college degree.

But most low-achieving high school students never earn a four-year degree; those who do earn a lot less than classmates who were average or above-average students.

In a 2007 Florida study, only 19 percent of students with a C average in high school earned any postsecondary credential in the six years after high school.

Students need clear information on whether they’re headed for college-level classes or remedial work, the authors argue.

“When counselors encourage students to attend college despite their low achievement, students infer that college is a place where previous low achievement doesn’t matter. Just as they managed to graduate from high school despite low achievement and minimal efforts, they expect the same in college. Indeed, while we are trying to protect students, we are actually preventing students form seeing what actions they could take to improve their outcomes.

Once students get to community college, counselors often urge them to pursue a transfer program aimed at a bachelor’s degree, even if that means taking multiple remedial classes to get their reading or math skills up to the college level. In some urban areas, 90 percent of high school graduates are placed in remedial classes at community college. Success rates are very low. Students often don’t realize they’re not earning any credit in “developmental” classes. “Colleges not only remove the stigma about remediation, they also remove clarity.”

Many students who fail in remedial programs could succeed in a vocational certificate program with lower academic demands, the authors argue. Or they could go for an applied associate’s degrees in a high-paying field such as computer networking, radiography, medical information technology and other careers.

“Instead of pushing BAs for all and extensive remedial coursework, the better private occupational colleges carefully match low-achieving students with appropriate occupational program that do not require college-level achievement in math or writing. These programs require fewer remedial courses and lead to preparation in high-demand fields.”

Career colleges average a 56 percent degree completion rate versus 37 percent for community colleges, despite enrolling slightly more low-achieving students.

Instead of setting students up to fail, community colleges should offer “stackable” certificates that let poorly prepared students build job credentials and climb as high as they can, the authors writes. “Quick-win certificates can be the first step on a degree ladder to associate’s and bachelor’s degrees.”