Even Harvard Agrees: Four-Year Colleges Aren’t for Everyone

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The one American college perhaps most synonymous with traditional postsecondary ideals has issued a report championing community colleges over four-year schools in order to transition youth into adulthood.

A Harvard University Graduate School of Education report concludes that rather than simply increase college enrollment, a comprehensive network of pathways to success must be created within the youth development field. In addition to encouraging initiatives away from the classroom, such as mentorship and internship programs, the report includes among the pathways associate degrees and vocational certificates offered at two-year schools as a major part of the package.  

The authors identify a three-pronged approach:

  • School reform that embraces a broad variety of strategies to engage young people who may not be best suited to attend a four-year institution, including increased emphasis on career counseling during high school and higher quality career education beyond high school;
  • An increased role by business leaders at earlier stages in youth development, rather than providing jobs at graduation;
  • Creation of a social compact between young people and the rest of society – educators, employers and governments – with an exchange of expectations.

“Unless we are willing to provide more flexibility and choice in the last two years of high school, and more opportunities for students to pursue program options that link work and learning, we will continue to lose far too many young people along the path to graduation,” said Robert Schwartz, who headed up this report as academic dean and professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

The report seems to fly in the face of the Obama administration’s push to double the number of college graduates over the next decade.  But the authors contend that steering students to community colleges helps to bolster the credentialing that the Obama administration stresses, and can ultimately funnel more students into four-year colleges.

The report, titled Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century, begins by establishing the crisis at hand, citing statistics on the current state of the American workforce and youth unemployment. For instance, 72 percent of the American workforce in 1973 had a high school diploma or less and by 2007 this number had shrunk to 41 percent. Workers with at least some college experience, on the other hand, accounted for 28 percent of the 1973 workforce, compared with 59 percent by 2007.  

 Linking education to careers at an early age is a constant theme in the report. Some solutions are explained, with examples of existing pathways the authors believe are already successfully engaging youth in non-traditional educational settings and of business partnerships in place.

Though the report questions the quality of education offered at community colleges, it stresses that since these schools serve the majority of Hispanics and African Americans enrolled in higher education “it is especially critical to improve their certificate or degree-granting productivity.” A Washington state program called Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training is named as a proven example that integrates remedial courses required at community colleges into actual workforce training in fields such as auto repair and nursing.

The authors call on community colleges to align themselves with local market demands and workforce systems, which is also a requirement in the recently announced federal grant opportunities for two-year colleges.

As for employers taking on a larger role, the Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship program, in which high school juniors and seniors complete work-based learning in a variety of careers, is offered as a scalable model.

Funding for the report came from four corporations – Accenture, the DeVry Foundation, the General Electric Foundation and the Pearson Foundation – and three non-profits – the James Irvine Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.