In February, the “college-for-all” movement was dealt a mighty blow with the publication of Harvard GSE’s Pathways to Prosperity report. This new book from Nancy Hoffman, VP of Jobs for the Future, offers yet another forceful whack. (Insider power-couple scoop: Ms. Hoffman is married to a lead author of Pathways.) Though a seemingly admirable crusade, she contends, “college for all” is ill-advised for a country interested in having an “appropriately skilled and employed workforce.” (It’s also an anomalous goal, not shared by other countries.) As Hoffman explains, unemployment rates currently soar, even as employers complain of difficulty finding candidates with the right skill set. Americans have often shied away from promoting Vocational Education and Training (VET) programming, viewing it as classist, even elitist—a system that perpetuates social and fiscal disparities. However, strong VET initiatives in other nations are redefining post-secondary options for students. These programs are thoughtful, rigorous pathways to careers—no longer the “throwaway” tracks for the least effective students. And they seem to be effective: In Switzerland, 42 percent of students attaining the highest scores on the PISA exam chose VET enrollment. High-performing Australia enrolls about 60 percent of its eleventh- and twelfth-year students in VET programs. Through six case studies, Hoffman articulates lessons for America as we think through expanding our own work-based learning programs. The biggest: Ensure constant employer participation in curricula and certification development and in apprenticeship placements. For those ready to revisit the “college-for-all” mandate, this book provides a useful starting point.
Nancy Hoffman, Schooling in the Workplace: How Six of the World’s Best Vocational Education Systems Prepare Young People for Jobs and Life (Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011).