Posted by: Tom Ross | April 30, 2014

Tough Love?


“Kid, college may not be the answer. Let’s explore your other options.”

Is this what we should be telling some high school students?

Michael Petrelli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and executive editor of Education Next, thinks it is (see his recent article in And he’s raised some eyebrows.

If you are a student whose reading and math are at a 6th grade level in 9th grade, the likelihood of being college ready in three years is slim, according to Petrelli. “Nor have you had much of an opportunity to develop the ‘non-cognitive skills’ that would help you to remediate the situation. You are foundering, failing courses, and thinking about dropping out. In community college you will need to take remedial classes before you can do anything. You need another pathway, one with significantly greater chances of success and a real payoff at the end—a job that will allow you to be self-sufficient.”

This in spite of evidence that people who graduate from college earn more money and have healthier, happier lives? What about the PEW report, ‘The Rising Cost of Not Going to College”?

Petrelli believes it’s a “false choice,” that the odds are against some students ever getting beyond remedial classes to a degree, especially if they are from lower-income families. And that encouraging them to go to college “does them more harm than good.”

“The decision is whether to follow the college route to almost certain failure, or to follow another route to significant success.”

CautionSign-150x150Mr. Petrelli is responding to a recent white paper from Express Employment Professionals, the nation’s largest privately held staffing firm, challenging the conventional wisdom of the four-year college option in today’s economy and exploring the benefits of CTE. The paper is titled “Caution: College May Not Be For Everyone.”

“Let’s defy conventional wisdom, “ the report begins. “It’s time to break a taboo: College isn’t for everyone. For many, there’s a better—but much less advertised—option: Career Technical Education (CTE). Let’s be more specific. A four-year stay at a traditional university won’t be the best fit for everyone. College is right for many people—but certainly it’s not right for everyone.”

The report finds that:

  • CTE-trained workers are in high demand. The 20 fastest growing occupations require an associate’s degree or less.
  • CTE can lead to high paying jobs. Many workers with a certificate earn more than college graduates.
  • CTE is affordable—especially compared to a 4-year college; college debt averages $30,000.
  • CTE is good for the economy and the workforce and keeps this country globally competitive.

The paper makes three recommendations to students:

  • Weigh the costs and benefits of a four-year university and a CTE credential.
  • Consider the growing CTE-related careers available to you.
  • Explore the business-education partnerships in your area.


The National Association of State Directors of CTE Consortium (NASDCTEc) thinks Petrelli sells CTE short. Kate Blosveren, Associate Executive Director, writes in the NASDCTEc blog:

“I believe Petrilli did CTE a major disservice with his piece. By setting up CTE as the option for students who are not “college material” he ultimately undermined the value CTE has for all students. And, perhaps more importantly, he reinforced the image problem the CTE community has to deal with every day: CTE remains the place you put kids who just can’t make it to college.”

“Students taking CTE sequences are more likely to graduate high school (at rates upward of 90%, well above the national average) because they find value in the authenticity and relevance CTE brings to their learning.” And they have the skills to be both college and career ready (ADP).

In the discussion that followed Mr. Petrelli’s article, Ms. Blosveren expanded on her reaction: “Ultimately, I believe that this piece fails to put forward the right message parents need and want to hear. If over 90 percent of parents want their children to go to “college,” it doesn’t really do CTE any good to frame itself as being the option other than college, but rather a pathway to a broader set of college options (since upwards of 75 percent of CTE concentrators go on to some postsecondary education within two years). By perpetuating the dichotomy of CTE vs. college, it still keeps CTE as “lesser than” rather than an equally viable (and more reliable) option.” You can follow this discussion on the Fordham Institute’s comments page.

What do you think?


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