Reality-Based Education—May 2018

The headline grabbed my attention—“High-Paying Jobs Go Begging While High School Grads Line Up for Bachelor’s Degrees.” This type of headline is catnip for someone who 1) is involved in the education profession, 2) has worked both in and out of that profession and 3) believes educators sometimes see the world through our own chalk-dust covered lenses. I highly recommend reading the article; the link is at the bottom of the page.

As you might expect, educators want all of their students to “do well.” Raymond School District’s vision is creating “graduates with the motivation and talent to achieve their dreams.” We want them to be “ready for life and its opportunities.” The reality is that dreams are personal and being “ready for life” is just as individualized. As a society, we are often guilty of sending the message that the only way to succeed is to go to college and that that the unspoken definition of college is a four-year institution. This is, of course, not true.

Very few people would argue that material success is best achieved by refusing to learn after high school; high school is not really designed to deliver students ready to jump directly into a job. However, there is literally a world of opportunity between “don’t learn anything new after graduating high school” and “you must attend university.” Before we decide that all students are best served by going to a four-year school (and taking on its attendant debt), perhaps it would be wise to step back and gain perspective on what employers require and what other opportunities exist.


In December, 2017, Forbes magazine reported “American companies have a problem. Over the past decade, they have begun to demand a bachelor’s degree in hiring workers for jobs that traditionally haven’t required one. This uptick in credentialing, or “degree inflation,” rested on the belief that these college-educated employees would be smarter, more productive, and more engaged than workers without a degree…

At the same time, college graduates filling these middle-skills positions (those that require more than a high school diploma but less than a college degree) such as supervisors, support specialists, technicians, sales representatives, data analysts, and production managers are costing companies more money to employ, tend to be less engaged in their jobs, have a higher turnover rate, and reach productivity levels only on par with high school graduates doing the same job.

This combination of underachievement and misalignment hurts both US competitiveness and working-class Americans seeking a career path toward a decent standard of living.” (

Our education system, largely devised at the beginning of the industrial era, was designed to produce workers in the proportion required for the economy at the time. Unskilled workers were approximately 65% of the workforce, skilled workers were approximately 15% and college-educated workers made up the remaining 20% of the workforce. Currently, while the need for four-year college degrees has remained relatively constant, the percentages for the other two areas have essentially flipped. Perversely, as the demand for unskilled workers has gone down, the system responded by encouraging every student to go to college. Given the demand for skilled (but not college-educated) workers, this is an untenable choice.


A Washington State Auditor’s report, also from December, 2017, stated that their audit “found that CTE [Career and Technology Education] courses offered in Washington’s public schools… could more strongly align with high-wage, high-demand occupational areas.” The report identified four areas for improvement:

“Improve career guidance given to students and provide it in a classroom setting in the 7th or 8th grade. This would introduce “students to the many careers and jobs available after high school [and] could help them choose occupations that pay well but may not require a four-year degree…The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and district CTE officials said many students and their parents are unaware of the options available to them, which can become a problem when students try to develop their High School and Beyond Plan.”

“Strengthen employer engagement to better align CTE programs and courses with high-wage industry-needed skills. Businesses report difficulty finding job candidates with the technical skills they need…To prepare students for the postsecondary world of education and work, the Workforce Board, OSPI and the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges can do more to ensure that schools and colleges strengthen their engagement with employers.

“Update the list of high-demand programs, strengthen the review of local labor demand data and clarify laws to help reduce the skills gap. Collecting and reviewing this type of evidence for all CTE programs and having the Legislature define key terms in the state’s CTE statutes would help OSPI to better assess whether district CTE programs are helping to address the skills gap.”

“Expand the number of CTE dual-credit opportunities to increase the number of pathways from high school to college. Students can take CTE courses in high school that align with similar courses in college programs, allowing them to gain “dual credit” at the college. This dual credit is typically achieved through articulation agreements between one high school and one college.”

As Forbes said in December “It is time for employers [and schools] to consider alternatives.  If they believe that applicants without a college degree are somehow lacking, they should consider investing in talent development pipelines that employ work-based-learning opportunities, co-op programs or paid apprenticeships. Companies, educators, and policymakers need to work together to bring about a systemic shift in the way middle-skills workers are prepared to enter the workforce by encouraging adoption of such approaches.”

A four-year degree for everyone is neither realistic nor desirable. Just as our nation wants to have qualified doctors, attorneys and teachers, we also want (and need) to have qualified electricians, plumbers and finish carpenters. The way that “qualification” is achieved is immaterial; there is nothing inherently better about a four-year degree. It’s time to stop advocating that such a degree is every student’s best option.


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(1) Comment

  1. Karla Webber

    Well said, Dr. Holland!

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