Ending the tyranny of the 4-year degree

Faculty essay by Thomas Halverson


In high schools across America, curriculums are nearly singularly focused on preparing students for admission to college—what Diane Ravitch has called “our next level of compulsory education.” Tom Halverson

We believe college (almost always referring to a 4-year degree) is essential for professional success and lifelong financial stability. As a result, school districts are engaged in an arms race to see how early and often they can include “college prep” courses in middle and high school.

The problem is, the system as it’s currently structured doesn’t work—or at least we know it doesn’t work for a majority of our students. Yet we continue to push for more and more of the same.

If we imagine the total Washington state population of incoming 9th graders as 1,000 students, it is predicted that only 310 (mostly white and middle-class students) will go on to complete a post-secondary degree. This leaves 690 students without a credential that we as a society believe is critical for long-term economic survival.

So why then is our current secondary education system focused (almost exclusively) on advancing policy strategies that serve the needs of a minority of our students, perpetuates social and economic disenfranchisement, and fails to meet projected workforce demands? The answer lies in a complicated equation that includes both technical challenges, as well as aspects of our society that we rarely like to talk about in public.

Certainly, we need the capacity within our public high schools for all our students to test their intellectual limits in math, science, English, world affairs, history and the arts. We need high schools that create opportunities for all our students to discover and fully test their academic potential. But we also need to recognize that the data is very clear; our current “one-size-fits-all,” assembly line mode of marching students toward graduation is just not recognizing and supporting the diversity of our students’ skills, interests and passions for their future.

Our current 'one-size-fits-all,' assembly line mode of marching students toward graduation is just not recognizing and supporting the diversity of our students’ skills, interests and passions for their future.

Not every bright and capable high school student dreams of a career in STEM, or is ready to go to college right after high school, or—most difficult for us to contemplate and comprehend—wants to pursue a career that requires a 4-year degree.  Our current system offers few, if any, alternative pathways for these students.

What if we were to create a different system, keeping those 690 students in mind? What if these students could take a mix of traditional college prep courses, as well as some cutting-edge career and technical education (CTE)—not choosing college or career preparation, but yes to both, in a blend that best fits their individual interests and aspirations?

A recent study found that taking CTE courses in high school can improve the odds of graduation, boost a student’s chances of taking advanced math and science coursework, and increase their earnings immediately after high school. We could design not just one path, and not just two paths (“college prep” or “not college prep”), but a variety of intertwined pathways offering students a plethora of learning environments, with “earn-while-you-learn” opportunities and legitimate options for students to enter different types of post-secondary education institutions when they are personally, professionally and financially ready.

Isn’t this just creating tracks that would ultimately lead to a “lesser” alternative for these students? We need to wake up, we have tracks now! We currently track nearly every high school student toward a 4-year degree whether it’s working for them or not. And by signaling that a 4-year degree is the only way to succeed, what are we then saying to a student who wants to join the military or follow in their mother’s footsteps and become a plumber? Are these categorically “unsuccessful” people too? Certainly a plumber could find a 4-year degree very useful, but do we need all of our plumbers to have one?

Look around. The world is full of examples (e.g. Switzerland, Germany and Finland) where providing students with multiple pathways to college and career leads to higher secondary education completion rates and a more stable and fulfilled workforce.

We need all of our students—regardless of their background, or parent’s education level, or socioeconomic status or immigration status—to have equal access, and a legitimate opportunity to be successful on whichever pathway they choose in high school. But, we also need to reject this outdated and ineffective convention: that either you prepare in the traditional way and go to college immediately following high school or you have failed—and consequently all those you see in our society who don’t have a college degree are somehow “lesser than.”

We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Pogo 

Certainly, creating multiple pathways would pose technical and logistical challenges for our systems of public education. Unfortunately, these aren’t the most difficult battles to wage. Two social and cultural phenomena have a significant influence on the perpetuation of our current system of access and opportunity to post-secondary education—or what David Labaree calls our “magical belief” that public schools can simultaneously increases access and preserve privilege.

The first is called “the margin of perceived competitive advantage.” People with an advantage in the current system (the Haves) want to maintain the status quo and, despite what they may say in public, they will fight ferociously to maintain their students' advantage over the Have Not students within the system. Have parents will support equity-focused changes in schools only to a point where their student can maintain a competitive advantage in the (college admissions) marketplace.

Second is the myth (held by both Have and Have Not parents) that our current system of secondary education is providing a viable pathway for “most” students to graduate and go on to get a post-secondary degree. As a result, there isn’t a sufficient sense of outrage among the voting public to disrupt the system and create change.

If we want to see a real change in the percentage of students graduating from high school and getting a post-secondary degree, we can’t just keep doing more of the same—we need to do things differently, a lot differently. And please be clear, just tacking on a few new alternatives to the existing system isn’t the answer, these tend to benefit those 310 students who plan to go to college anyway. We need to let go of the myth that the current system works for most high school students and recognize that we are failing to prepare a majority of the young people in our state to lead their best lives. 

Last, and perhaps most importantly, we need to confront the fact that the biggest challenge in pursuing a reprioritization and redesign of the system isn’t the cost, or the infrastructure or the logistics—it’s the fundamental change we will need to bring to ourselves.

Thomas Halverson is a senior lecturer and director of the Master’s in Education Policy program at the University of Washington. He is the co-author of “Exploring the Politics of Differential Resource Allocation: Implications for Policy Design and Leadership Practice.”