Posted by: Tom Ross | April 21, 2011

College Ready — Career Ready: Controversial New Thoughts on the roles of CTE and Higher Education in a Changing World

If you look me up in Who’s Who Among High School Students, it says “Tom plans to be a forest ranger” (I really liked biology and the outdoors).  But I excelled in French, and overall my grades were good, so I was awarded a scholarship to a state university: $175 a semester to cover tuition and fees. Since I was paying my own way, this cinched the deal. There was no question: I would be the first in my family to graduate from college. But my degree would be in French and education—despite my greater interest in biology.

The Promise of a College Degree?

For my generation, a higher education was a luxury. It was also more a coming of age experience for me than training for a career. Back then, just having a degree would open doors. Good grades were the most important thing. This is why I stayed in foreign languages, since my biology grades weren’t as strong.

It’s becoming more and more obvious that those days are past. With record numbers of college graduates emerging with their bachelor degrees in hand but no job prospects on the horizon, we’re being forced to recognize the fact that heading directly to a 4-year college after graduating from high school is no longer the golden ticket for a good job and successful life it once – if ever – was. And the notion that a college education is an end, in and of itself, is cold comfort to the unemployed. Rather, education should facilitate a student’s passage to work and career more effectively than it does now.

Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, made waves last week, by expressing even harsher criticisms of our love affair with higher degrees. Thiel believes we’re in a bubble, but he’s not talking about technology or the housing market.  A bubble, he says, is something that is overvalued and in which we have blind, possibly unsubstantiated faith. He argues that the current bubble is higher education and points out that you don’t pay a quarter of a million dollars to go to a school like Harvard just to read Chaucer. You work hard to get there because you believe that if you do it, you will be set for life; that it’s worth the investment. He questions the validity of such an investment, pointing out that most college students don’t actually go to Harvard, that having attended and graduated from Harvard is no actual guarantee of success, and that it’s very possible that there are other ways to achieve the end goal of success.

Peter Theil

If nothing else, it gives us pause.  If the promise of higher ed – a solid and certain future with a high-paying career – is only panning out for a fraction of those going that route, then it’s less about criticizing higher education, and more about reasoned skepticism regarding its promise.

Enter CTE?

In grad school I began taking classes in education and eventually received a Masters in Teaching. The final step was “student teaching.” I had to be an unpaid intern in a local high school for 12 weeks. In retrospect, this was one of the best things that happened to me. I was assigned six French classes—two French 1 and 2 classes and one each for French 3 and 4. The second day, my lead teacher became ill. She never came back. I finished the year for her, a total of 20 weeks.

Student teaching was just a chore, a requirement I had to fulfill. I didn’t expect it to be so instructive or so rewarding. My college education led to workplace training. It was a combination that seemed to make sense at the time. But what would have happened if at the end of 6 years of post-secondary study, I got to student teaching and realized that I hated the actual teaching?

In this day and age, the sequence of events is often the opposite, thanks to Career Technical Education. High school students in CTE programs have the opportunity for workplace experience and training before they decide the next steps in their career path, which can include a college education. CTE and college are far from mutually exclusive. In fact, we believe that folded together, they can create a far more educational education.

“One of the most fundamental obligations of any society is to prepare its adolescents and young adults to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults.” So begins a recent report from Harvard University’s Pathways to Prosperity Project, Pathways to Prosperity. The emphasis in similar reports from the past has always been that you need a college degree to achieve this. This study recommends we not neglect CTE.

The Pathways to Prosperity study suggests a three-pronged approach:  1) multiple pathways to adulthood, emphasizing career counseling and career education, 2) work-based learning with increased industry participation, and 3) a “new social compact” that promises young adults the education and experience they need to succeed.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reacted to the Harvard report with two crucial points:  First that we need to stop overlooking CTE and treating it like “the neglected stepchild of education reform.” And secondly, that we need to rethink CTE – change its mission so that students are career ready, with the post-secondary degrees and the industry-recognized certifications they need. This doesn’t mean diminishing the role of academics but rather including the knowledge and skills employers require. “It is our responsibility, he concludes, “to prepare all students for both [college and a career].”

That’s a pretty strong endorsement from the nation’s top education official. But that doesn’t mean CTE gets a pass on the scrutiny either. This week Secretary Duncan continued the discussion by urging CTE educators– as the reauthorization of the Perkins Act approaches—to prove that they are “worthy investments” for federal funding as part of his address to the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium and the U.S. Office of Vocational and Adult Education.

Which Brings Us To…

In the current political and economical climate, every dollar is being counted and every expenditure examined for evidence of value. CTE’s greatest problem is there’s not a lot of hard data currently available to provide evidence of its efficacy. However, this lack of “proof” is, to us, a poor reason to defund CTE programs. We agree that CTE programs and professionals need to be able to provide hard data that supports assertions regarding the positive impact on students’ lives and the economy. In the meantime, it may be more costly to not fund CTE initiatives, because the alternatives belong to a system which works for some, but is clearly broken for a growing majority. More importantly, the only way to gather data about CTE that is neither old nor anecdotal is to simply do it, and systematically collect the data necessary. Considering the possibility that it could actually cause more harm than good, we should be careful that any implementations of CTE are not irreversible, permanent, or otherwise tie up resources indefinitely.

We think that the anecdotal and circumstantial data is good enough to at least treat CTE programs as a working experiment. The truth is, if we don’t try anything different, the only thing we can expect is more of the same.

In his speech, Secretary Duncan mentioned the Granite Falls High School (WA) Shop Girls as an example of how CTE programs can transform students’ lives . This was the first all-girl team to enter the Shell Co. Eco Marathon Americas competition, and in classic CTE form, the Eco Teams program at Granite Falls High has begun to change students’ perceptions about their own possibilities and futures.

Granite Falls High School "Shop Girls" at work; Photo: Michael Werner

The Shop Girls, with their training and experience from their school’s Eco Teams program, now can make choices that make sense to them. For example, they can move right into the industry, knowing what they enjoy and can do best. Or they can continue their education at the college level with sights set on engineering, innovation, marketing, and/or design. Or, even further, they can move into a completely different area of study, with a technical background to enrich their perspectives. Whichever way, they are doing what they love, learning what they need to know, and looking forward to futures full of promise.

It’s a great time to be a student.


  1. Your title seems to be a bit of a conundrum – is this really controversial and new? Not to many of us who have been CTE professionals but I do agree it is news to those in the college bubble. My question is, how do we burst the bubble and free the techies from the “one way to win” described by Gray and Herr in their book (“Other Ways to Win”)?

    Another interesting component is the increase in skill level needed for today’s careers which drastically reduces the divide between college prep and career readiness in high schools.

  2. […] favorable attention. However, in consideration of the Secretary of Education’s comments, Tom touched on a topic that’s long been a pebble in our collective shoe: the lack of systemic, long-term data for […]

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