Faith in the idea that a four year college degree is the key pathway to social and economic mobility and a prosperous life produces what the political philosopher Michael Sandel calls the credentialist prejudice. The result is a degree that becomes, in Sandel’s words, “a precondition for dignified work and social esteem…fueling prejudice against less educated members of society.” The K-12 mantra for this is “college for all.”
This view exists despite two facts. First, nearly two thirds (65 percent) of the U.S. labor force doesn’t have a college degree. Second, there are many good middle-skill jobs for individuals with a high school education who don’t have a college degree.
There’s a promising movement underway to replace the “bachelor’s degree for all” mentality with a broader approach to understanding opportunity. While not abandoning the degree pathway, the new opportunity agenda creates more specialized skills-based pathways and credentials linked with labor market demand. This approach makes the nation’s opportunity infrastructure more pluralistic by offering many publicly recognized and credentialed pathways to success. That’s good for the students who benefit from these programs and also for society, which can make better use of talents that might otherwise be overlooked.
The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic may help accelerate the transition away from the credentialist prejudice and toward opportunity pluralism.
The Receding Credentialist Prejudice
The credentialist prejudice manifests itself in different ways.
Four-year degrees are now required for jobs that once did not demand them. A Harvard Business School study documents the pervasiveness of this “degree inflation.” For example, while only 16 percent of existing production supervisors in 2015 had college degrees, two thirds (67 percent) of job postings for supervisors include degree requirements. Actual skill requirements haven’t changed, but the credential threshold for being hired has increased. Another analysis of degree inflation showed that while only 19 percent of administrative assistants have a university degree, about 65 percent of job postings ask for one. Given the significant racial gaps in college attainment, degree inflation is especially pernicious in the negative impact it has on hiring racial minorities.
Another manifestation of credentialist prejudice is the common assumption that low-wage workers without degrees are low skilled. A study whose lead author was Harvard economist Peter Q. Blair found 16 million U.S. workers with only a high school diploma had skills for high-wage work (defined as more than twice the national median wage). Eleven million of them were employed in low- or middle-wage work. Employers are missing out on talented workers.
A college degree has become what Burning Glass Technologies CEO Matt Sigelman calls a proxy that assures employers—rightly or wrongly—that the learner has successfully completed “a major exercise in deferred gratification.”
There are indications that Covid-19 is weakening the link between college and high-wage jobs. Burning Glass Technologies, a labor-market analytics firm, calculates that since the pandemic began, entry-level hiring for college grads decreased 45 percent. The pandemic also has produced soaring unemployment among 16-to-24-year-olds. At 11 percent in April 2021, it’s higher than it was in any month in 2017, 2018, or 2019. A survey of college graduates by human resources firm Monster found almost half (45 percent) of spring 2020 grads still looking for work.
As a Wall Street Journal article put it in a message to the class of 2021, “The good news: You’re entering one of the hottest job markets on record…as the economy pulls out of its pandemic lockdown. The bad news: The competition is ferocious. Many…who graduated last year are still trying to find their first big break.”
Finally, there’s also support from the American public as well as parents and young people for rethinking the connection between K-12, careers, and degrees.
A Strada Education Network-Gallup survey shows seven in 10 Americans believe employers should hire job candidates with the required skills and work experience, even without a college degree. Less than half say employers in their field do so.
A Carnegie Corporation-Gallup nationally representative survey of nearly 3,000 parents of 11-to-24-year-olds found nearly half (46 percent) want more post-high-school pathways other than four-year college. As parents learn more about these programs, they are more favorably disposed.
An FIL Inc. nationally representative survey of parents amid the pandemic found two of three call for rethinking “how we educate students, coming up with new ways to teach….” Eighty-two percent favor “work-based learning programs or apprenticeships” and 80 percent support “more vocational classes in high schools.”
More than half (52 percent) of Generation Z high schoolers now say they can achieve professional success with three years or less of post-high-school education, with only one in four saying a four-year degree is the only route to a good job.
A New Opportunity Program
How to replace the receding credentialist prejudice with opportunity pluralism? The essential elements of a new program are what students know—knowledge—and whom they know—relationships. The goal: ensure every American—especially those in K-12 schools—regardless of background or current condition, has multiple pathways to acquiring the knowledge and networks they need for jobs and careers preparing them to access opportunity and a flourishing life.
In short, Knowledge + Networks = Opportunity
Five features should guide pathways program design, creating a pathways success infrastructure.
Academic and Technical Skills and Credentials. Successful programs teach academic and technical skills that are aligned with labor market needs, supplying graduates that meet employer demands. There’s a timeline for program completion. When participants do complete the program, they receive a recognized credential, tied to a good job.
Work and Careers. Exposure to work and careers begins early in school through guest speakers and includes exploring job options through field trips. High school includes career experience via work placement and mentorships, integrated into classroom instruction. Exposure, exploration, and experience connect students with adults. That is especially important for students in high-poverty communities.
Advising. A well-functioning advising system prevents forced tracking into jobs based on race, ethnicity, gender, or social class. This ensures students make informed choices; barriers like financial assistance are addressed; and data are used to keep students progressing through the program. This fosters agency. With good advising, students eventually become knowledgeable enough to make their own choices about the correct pathway.
Authentic Partnerships. Employers, industry groups, and other institutions must collaborate for programs to succeed. Written agreements can help to define who is responsible for what and to formalize a management and governance structure—a civic partnership—between partners.
Supporting Policies. Local, state, and federal policies create frameworks and funding streams for program development.
Not holding a college degree should not be a barrier to career pathways that lead to social and economic mobility and a prosperous life. The credentialist prejudice needs to give way to a broader array of opportunities. University of Texas law professor Joseph Fishkin writes on how opportunities are structured and accessed by individuals, including how the job credentialing process contains bottlenecks that constrain opportunity. He argues for opportunity pluralism, or offering individuals multiple education, training, and credentialing pathways to work and career, including the four-year college degree. Instead of struggling to equalize opportunity on a single pathway, the range of opportunities for individuals should be broadened and deepened, making the nation’s opportunity infrastructure more pluralistic, valuing both educational and employment outcomes.
An opportunity program is not about discouraging young people from pursing a two-year or four-year degree. Rather, it positions those options among many other possible valued credentials that recognize that knowledge, networked experience, and skills lead to good jobs and a fulfilled life. This same principle—that a wider array of options is better for both students and society—supports the idea of more colleges separating, or “unbundling,” the four-year degree into multiple certificates or credentials. These building blocks, or stackable credentials, would be acquired while working and learning through a career progression toward what we typically call an associate’s or bachelor’s degrees. David Osborne of reinventing government fame has proposed individual “career opportunity accounts” as a way to pay for this approach to education and training. It would combine federal and state dollars, potentially including individual contributions somewhat like individual retirement accounts.
These pathways programs that help young people acquire knowledge, networks, skills and experience also help them develop an occupational identity and vocational self. This includes a broader sense of who they are as adults. Such programs also provide faster and cheaper pathways to jobs and careers than traditional postsecondary education. Finally, they place students on a trajectory to economic and social well-being, informed citizenship, and civic responsibility, laying a foundation for adult success and a lifetime of opportunity.
Bruno V. Manno is Senior Advisor to the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 Program.
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