On June 8, President Barack Obama visited Northern Virginia Community College. He rolled up his sleeves and tooled around under the hood of a hybrid car that students were learning to repair. Later, he gave a speech on the importance of more Americans gaining access to higher education—not just at four-year universities but at community colleges and occupational training programs too.
“The goal isn’t just making sure that somebody has got a certificate or a diploma,” Obama said. “The goal is to make sure your degree helps you to get a promotion or a raise or a job. And that’s especially important right now.”
The president’s remarks departed significantly from the “college for all” rhetoric that frequently dominates the education policy debate. That conversation burst open in February, when the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report called “Pathways to Prosperity.” The report noted that of the 47 million American jobs expected to be created between now and 2018, about two-thirds will require some sort of education beyond high school, yet a much smaller proportion will require a four-year college degree. About 14 million of these new jobs will be in “mid-skill” occupations that require just a post-secondary certificate or associate’s degree: jobs such as dental hygienist, construction manager and electrician. Such occupations can provide a path into the middle class; indeed, 27 percent of workers with occupational licenses earn more than the average recipient of a bachelor’s degree.
In the context of an economy where unemployment hovers above 9 percent, and the job outlook is particularly bleak for low-skilled workers—those who, in previous generations, would have depended on the now-decimated manufacturing sector—these projections brought new urgency to an old debate, one that has divided American social reformers for more than a century. Do poor and working-class kids have the same need for a liberal arts education as their middle-class and affluent peers? Or does the reality of inequality in America—the sheer unlikeliness of climbing from poverty into the intelligentsia within a single generation—call for a more practical approach to educating the poor, with a focus on technical skills that prepare a child for the world of work?
The Harvard report—warmly embraced by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—set off a storm of criticism from self-declared education reformers, who rose to defend the “college for all” approach. “While I agree that all students could benefit from more exposure to the world of work, I vehemently disagree with the [Harvard] authors’ main argument: that we already tried preparing all students for college and it didn’t work,” wrote Kati Haycock, president of the Washington, DC, think tank Education Trust, which focuses on closing the achievement gap and was a major player in advocating for No Child Left Behind and, more recently, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant program. “Most schools still resist the idea that all kids can and should be college-ready. By continuing long-standing, unfair practices of sorting and selecting, they create what is essentially an educational caste system—directing countless young people, especially low-income students and students of color, away from college-prep courses and from seeing themselves as ‘college material.’”