In the big push to get larger numbers of youths to obtain more than just a high school education, college needs to be redefined and youths should be given a wider array of options for vocational training.
Those are some of the ideas offered Thursday during an Urban Institute panel discussion titled "School of Hard Shocks: Should Everyone Go to College?"
None of the panelists answered the question with a flat out "no," but they all agreed that their collective "yes" is a bit more nuanced than a simple "yes or no" question allows.
Panelist Robert Lerman, an Urban Institute fellow, said the American education system needs to provide youths more choices for training that leads to actual jobs.
"I don't want to be on record saying people shouldn't be encouraged to go to college," Lerman said, "but I think we need to diversify the routes to rewarding careers."
Lerman criticized the "academic only" education as being too narrow to suit the various learning styles and interests of America's youths. It also fails to prepare students for the workforce.
As an alternative, Lerman touted apprenticeships, saying apprenticeships give youths the opportunity to learn and earn right away. To bolster his case, he held up a copy of The Means To Grow Up: Reinventing Apprenticeship As a Developmental Support in Adolescence, and recommended reading the book. He did the same thing at a different conference held by the Employment and Training Administration earlier this week.
"This approach (apprenticeship) is very relevant for lots of young people, especially minorities and young men who want to see immediate gains ... and want the chance to apply themselves in a practical way," Lerman said.
Paul Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, says the case for going to college is supported by job growth patterns over the past few decades.
He provided statistics that show the vast majority of job growth has involved jobs that required some sort of post-secondary education and that there are fewer jobs these days than 30-something years ago for youths who only graduated from high school.
But other statistics show money has been a factor in how often low-income students actually access post-secondary education to get the education they need to get a job in today's economy.
For instance, Lingenfelter said, statistics show that the highest-achieving low-income students only go to college at roughly the same rate as the lowest-achieving students from affluent families. Those rates are 78 and 77 percent, respectively.
The point, Lingenfelter said, is that, "An enormous amount of human potential is being wasted" due to issues of affordability.
Charles Kolb, president of the Committee for Economic Development, called for reshaping the public's view of what college involves.
"We tend to think of college as a place, lecture halls and the like," Kolb said. "That needs to change.
"We should think of college as a process where learning should happen," Kolb said, explaining that on-line universities such as Kaplan and Phoenix have changed the delivery modes for post-secondary education.
Kolb also called for greater accountability for post-secondary education.
"The K-12 sector has gone through a very important and rigorous accountability discussion, beginning with 'A Nation At Risk,' " Kolb said. He said the Spellings Commission report on higher education was a start, but efforts to hold colleges and universities accountable need to go deeper and continue to reexamine how college is structured, priced, and delivered.
Kolb cited research that shows declining college completion rates and how America's youth are gradually becoming less-educated than they were in earlier decades.
"We are likely to have now the first generation that is not as well-educated as its predecessors," Kolb said.
In 2000, she said, only three in 10 Americans thought college was necessary. In 2008, she said, that number rose to five in 10.
"That is a real shift in a relatively short period of time," Johnson said. "A great majority of Americans believe there's a kind of moral obligation for this society that every qualified and motivated student should have a chance to go to college and shouldn't be deterred by costs."