The False Choice That Holds Our Kids Back

(The Bloomberg View) -- The following is an adaptation of a speech delivered at the 2018 New York Times Higher Ed Leaders Forum. 

One of the biggest false choices in the debate over education is an ideological argument about college.

One side thinks that every student should get an acceptance letter from a four-year college. The other argues that college is overrated and that we should focus on preparing young people for well-paid careers that don’t require a four-year education. The truth is that this isn’t an either/or situation. We need to do both: put more focus on college and careers, so students have a real choice.

Yet right now, we’re not doing either one very well. Today, about 40 percent of teenagers don’t enter college immediately after high school. Some of them graduate from high school. Others don’t make it that far. 

But whether or not they graduate, we haven’t given them the skills and training they need to begin a career, and they pay for that for the rest of their lives, in limited opportunities and lost earnings.

At the same time, too many kids who do go to college aren’t prepared to succeed there. Partly as a result, the national graduation rate for four-year colleges is only 40 percent. Even after six years, only 60 percent of students who enter graduate.

So on the one hand, we aren’t preparing high-school graduates for success in college, and on the other, we effectively treat non-college-bound students as second-class citizens, giving them no preparation for their next steps in life.

Bloomberg Philanthropies is working on both of these challenges — and our game plan begins with a simple idea: States, districts and schools must deliver better results, and to do that, they need to start with specific, year-by-year college and career readiness goals. Those goals should be set down in writing and made public, so parents and elected officials can hold schools accountable for achieving them. Otherwise, schools will continue skating by on good intentions and lofty rhetoric.

Of course, setting clear short-term goals is the easy part. The hard part is doing the work necessary to meet them.

Let’s start with what it takes to prepare students for the choice between college or a career: improving achievement in the early grades.

By now, there is plenty of evidence for what works. Raise standards for students; raise salaries for teachers in exchange for greater accountability; give principals the freedom to hire, manage, and train school staff; ensure that every classroom is led by a skilled and effective teacher; ensure that teachers who fail, even after getting mentoring and professional development, can be moved out of the classroom; and give students and parents more quality school options, including charters.

Taking those steps isn’t easy, given the institutional forces aligned against them. But it is possible — and our experience here in New York City shows the difference it can make. We raised teacher salaries in exchange for greater accountability, showing that elected officials and union officials can come together to improve both teacher pay and student outcomes.

Over the course of our time in City Hall, the percentage of students in the city’s public schools earning a Regents or Advanced Regents Diploma — which for a generation was a proxy for college readiness — doubled, from 30 to more than 60 percent. At the same time, graduation rates in New York City increased by 42 percent.

In New York, we also closed down failing schools and opened 650 new public schools, charters and non-charters alike — including 46 schools focused on career and technical education. And in New York, those 650 new schools had graduation rates 10 points higher than their peers in larger schools, with black and Hispanic students leading the way.

As important as these steps are, we have to make sure that students who are ready actually attend schools that match their abilities.

Think about this: Fewer than half of 1 percent of students from the poorest 20 percent of families attends a selective college — even though many have the grades to get in. Or consider this: Only 6 percent of kids at top colleges come from the poorest families. And more than 50 percent of qualified lower-income students don’t even apply.

If we want to stop intergenerational poverty, we have to start by helping more of those deserving kids go to good colleges. Our foundation has launched two initiatives designed to change that.

One is called the American Talent Initiative. It’s a coalition of top colleges and universities that are committed to increasing the number of lower-income, high-achieving students that they accept and graduate. One hundred of the nation’s best colleges have signed up, and our goal is for another 50,000 lower-income students to enroll at these schools by 2025.

The second initiative is called College Point. It helps high-achieving, lower-income students — many of whom are not getting the kind of college guidance counseling they need. As a result, they often don’t realize they are qualified to attend top schools or to receive financial aid.

Through counseling over the phone, texting, video chat and email, we help them through the application process and work to make sure that they apply to and enroll in the kinds of schools they have earned the right to attend. Already 40,000 students have participated in the program.

Now, let me turn to the other side of the equation: career and technical education.

For too long, we have been afraid to acknowledge that some high-school students don’t want to remain in academia after they turn 18. But what other options are we giving them? Practically none. 

Around the country, vocational schools and programs have been eliminated, and many of those that survived are still trapped in the 1960s and 1970s. They are often stigmatized as more of a dumping ground than a learning lab.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that many students drop out. After all: If you determine that college isn’t for you, what good is it to spend your days taking classes that are effectively college prep?

But it’s not just the drop-out rate we have to consider. Nationally, plenty of students who do get a high-school diploma but don’t go to college are also left with few career options. 

We have to do more to help both groups — those at risk of dropping out, and those who get a diploma but don’t go on to college — learn skills that they can put to use in the workforce, in jobs that won’t be automated out of existence. I’m thinking of jobs in plumbing, automotive mechanics and construction.

Now, in many cases — though not at Bloomberg — employers require a college degree for jobs where the actual job responsibilities are very different from what students learn in college. I’ve never thought that made sense, and I’d encourage CEOs to rethink it — although our company benefits from their exclusionary policies.

I understand why others do it: A college degree shows that someone had the discipline and maturity to complete a major undertaking. But we must find ways to teach all students the “soft skills” that employers value.

Almost one-third of new job openings require a skill of some sort — not a bachelor’s degree. And in many cases, employers are struggling to fill those jobs, which hurts economic growth.

But states have defunded the kinds of schools and programs that teach these skills, and few places are teaching skills that are required for newer jobs that are in demand, like lab technicians and help-desk operators.

These jobs are no less important than jobs that require bachelor’s degrees and we need states to start treating them that way, by investing in high-quality career and technical education programs and schools.

In some areas, school districts can improve skill training by tapping into support from the local business community. Some cities and states have begun doing this, and we’ve been working to support them. In these programs, employers provide education and skill development in a wide variety of fields — and in exchange, they get access to a pipeline of future workers.

And the students? They get four main benefits: real-world work experience; community college credit while they are in high school; an option to continue for a higher degree or additional job certification; and the chance to interview for full-time positions.

It’s a win-win — and one more concrete illustration that educational success in the U.S. doesn’t need to be held back by ill-informed either/or debates.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.