Building better paths to learning beyond high school

September 2, 2012 

Among the many debates swirling around secondary and higher education these days, one in particular stands out in economic importance – the debate over whether we should be preparing all students or only some students for college.

The manner in which this question is answered depends a lot on one’s assumptions about the future. The issue is whether a young adult will be relatively better off if he or she obtains a college degree. One’s answer likely depends on whether one believes the demand for labor going forward will be stronger for those with higher-order, albeit general academic skills or for those with other forms of advanced training who master a more discrete career and technical education.

The arguments mounted by policymakers on both sides, unfortunately, are generally cast in terms of strict binaries: College Prep vs. Vocational Education. Biology Lab vs. Welding. Plato vs. Plumbing, as it were. The debate has in many ways become a political football. As former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum put it in a speech in February: “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to tests that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor that is trying to indoctrinate them.”

To be sure, no one ever accused Rick Santorum of committing a nuance, but if one studies the debate closely, one finds that the actual arguments being made by serious analysts on “both” sides are much more subtle and subject to qualification than they often are made out to be. Thoughtful Democrats aren’t calling for “college for all” but for some type of post-secondary education for everyone. Similarly, thoughtful Republicans aren’t trying to shut down Classics departments, much less shut up “liberal” college professors. They are calling for more realistic assessments of students’ interests and aptitudes, and for putting greater value on, and investment in educational and career passways that don’t necessarily entail four-year college diplomas.

Recent forecasts regarding future occupational opportunities in North Carolina predict job growth in a variety of areas, only some of which call for post-secondary education. With such forecasts in mind, the Global Research Institute (GRI) at UNC-Chapel Hill recently completed a discussion paper that attempts to craft some policy recommendations to help the state to meet its diverse labor-market challenges in the years ahead.

The report, entitled “Moving Beyond Plato versus Plumbing,” is very detailed, sufficiently so as to satisfy most wonks. In a nutshell, though, what the authors do is to call for the creation of more flexible and diverse education and career passways which would prioritize multiple points on the educational pipeline between high school and a four-year degree without breaking the bank. The main recommendations are intended at once to:

•  Foster individualized educational and career plans and multiple developmental paths for all high-school students;

•  Support various types of certificate programs – formally authenticating the acquisition of specific job competencies – as alternatives to college degrees;

•  Invest in both “middle-skill” jobs and “globally competitive and competent” workers;

•  Build a stronger and better marked bridge from community college to a four-year degree;

•  Institutionalize assessment of future “fits” in North Carolina among education, training and the labor market;

•  Explore the viability of new insurance products that guard against future economic uncertainty.

Many individuals, offices and organizations, public and private alike, are currently doing extremely creative work in the same policy space treated in our report. Some of the efforts are the handiwork of liberals, some the result of conservative initiatives. At the end of the day, there is no need to pigeonhole good ideas, which can and do transcend political labels and party lines.

What is needed, we believe, is a new bipartisan consensus, acknowledging the value of four-year degrees for some people, while aiming for some form of post-secondary education for all North Carolinians.

Let us hope that gubernatorial candidates Pat McCrory and Walter Dalton, both of whom are avidly interested in education, will work toward such a consensus in the years ahead.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome distinguished professor of history and director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill. Daniel P. Gitterman is associate professor of public policy and senior fellow at the institute. The discussion paper referenced above is available at

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