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2016 Take Stock in Children Monroe County Graduation Announcement

Take Stock 2015 Graduation

KEY WEST, FL, May 27, 2016

The Monroe County Education Foundation will recognize the accomplishments and celebrate the graduation of 42 Take Stock in Children scholars on Saturday, June 4, 2016 at 11:30 a.m. in the Marathon High School Auditorium.

This year the commencement speaker will be retired Master Chief Navy SEAL Rick Kaiser who is currently the executive director of the National Navy SEAL Museum in Ft. Pierce, Florida. Other speakers and dignitaries include Steve Pribramsky, President of MCEF, Monroe County Superintendent of Schools Mark Porter, and three Take Stock in Children 2016 scholars: Oscar Flores, Eddie Hannah, and Leda Morales-Jerez.

“We’ll be honoring the accomplishments of these dedicated and hard-working students” Porter said. He added, “We look forward to recognizing these 42 talented Monroe County students who will now begin the next phase of their educational journey.” Pribramksy emphasized, “These scholarships would not be possible without the generosity of our donors who provide an unbelievable opportunity for our economically eligible and academically motivated students to realize their dream of a college education.”

Although the stated mission of Take Stock in Children is to provide students with the financial resources to attend college, the Monroe County Education Foundation board continues to focus on providing students with all tools and skills necessary to complete a degree, diploma, or certificate. Program Coordinator Chuck Licis highlighted the importance of Take Stock’s college and career readiness efforts. “Nearly all of this year’s graduating class is college-ready, meaning they will immediately be enrolling in college-level math, science, and English classes.” Licis added, “We are very proud of our amazing scholars; two-thirds of our graduates attending university this fall, and one of our graduates will be attending Stanford University.”

The Monroe County Education Foundation, established in 1996, is a Florida not-for-profit organization dedicated to enhancing and improving the educational experiences of students within Monroe County. In addition to the MCEF flagship program, Take Stock in Children, the foundation provides leadership development opportunities and international travel experiences for qualified Monroe County students. Over 250 students from Monroe County have received scholarships since the program was founded. For more information about MCEF or to donate, please visit http://www.monroecountyedfound.org or contact Chuck Licis, program director for TSIC Monroe County at Chuck.Licis@KeysSchools.com

Do Americans Expect Too Much From a College Degree?

Chronicle of Higher Education

By Dan Berrett September 02, 2014

In times like these, data points get wielded like cudgels.

Student-loan debt tops $1-trillion. As many as half of recent graduates are out of work, earn trifling wages, or have jobs that don’t require college degrees. Clearly, such numbers suggest, college isn’t worthwhile.

At the same time, remedies for what ails the economy often invoke higher education as a solution. Policy makers and foundations want more people to earn postsecondary degrees because they increase wages. Politicians press colleges to align programs with the needs of industry.

Together these sentiments show how deeply intertwined higher education and the economy have grown.

As colleges have sold themselves as economic-development vehicles, and their degrees as tickets to the middle class, the ethos of the marketplace has become their master, overshadowing their civic and intellectual purposes.

The tight embrace of higher education and the economy has an obvious downside: When times get tough, colleges take a beating. Predictably, tales emerge of recent graduates with expensive and worthless degrees failing to make their way into adulthood. They come from many of the same colleges, we are told, that are the envy of the world.

As college costs increase, so do expectations about payoff and questions about value. How should colleges be judged, if not by the financial success of their students? Is it higher education’s job to fix the economy?

These questions suffuse Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, the new book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The authors track and interview many of the same students from their 2011 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which documented 2009 graduates’ meager gains in learning during college. As they graduate and try to find jobs and a foothold in the adult world, many of them struggle, the authors find.

Mr. Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Ms. Roksa, an associate professor in the same disciplines at the University of Virginia, did not restrict themselves to economic measures in forming their conclusions. They analyzed their subjects’ civic engagement, living situations, and relationships, and connected many of those measures to how much the students learned during college.

A chapter dedicated to economic metrics, like employment status and income, provides some of the most striking data, including a finding that students who performed poorly on a test of critical-thinking skills were more likely than those who scored well to have lost their jobs.

The book also includes stories about the students themselves, distilled from interviews with 80 graduates. Two of the narratives show how economic metrics often fail to account for the quirks of personality and fate that can determine the trajectories of individual lives, and how colleges are both essential actors and bit players in that journey.

“Nathan” kicks off the book. He is a business-administration major, a field whose graduates tend to get high-paying jobs fairly quickly. Nathan wasn’t so lucky. Two years after graduating, he still lived with his parents and was making deliveries for a national pharmacy chain, earning less than $20,000 a year. He found his job on Craigslist, not through any resources from his college.

His sputtering progress after college was foreshadowed by his choices during it, Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa write. Nathan coasted, focusing more on socializing than on academics. He studied mostly with his friends, doing so alone for just five hours a week. When asked to name a significant academic experience, he at first couldn’t think of one. Still, Nathan graduated with a 3.9 grade-point average.

“Beth,” a first-generation college student, offers a contrast. She majored in what is described as a rigorous health-related program. Like business, such majors tend to quickly result in jobs that pay well.

Beth took advantage of what college had to offer. She reported working hard, dedicating more than 20 hours each week to studying alone, while also gaining practical experience in a hospital. Beth was engaged, both in and outside class. Unprompted, she described a course in the history of Islamic civilization as academically stimulating and said her membership on the rowing team was demanding and eye-opening. Her gain on a standardized test of critical-thinking skills was nearly double the average.

In other words, Beth did everything right. Four months after graduation, however, she found herself living at home, rejected for more than 50 jobs.

After interviewing several times for a job for which she lacked clinical experience, she made a direct appeal. “I think I finally got to a point where I just straight-out said, ‘You know what, I just need someone to give me a chance to prove myself and that I can be a valuable employee to your department,’ ” she told the researchers. She got the job.

“Beth’s story exemplifies many aspects of the constructive role that four-year colleges and universities can play in the lives of young adults,” Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa write. Why, they wonder, aren’t there more stories like hers?

Part of the problem, they argue, is that colleges like Nathan’s make it too easy to be lazy and still get a nearly perfect GPA. But how much of Nathan’s failure to be engaged was his own doing? If his professors had given him more C’s, would that have woken him up, or would he have greeted those marks with a shrug?

It’s also not clear exactly how much Beth’s college contributed to her success. She praises her “solid upbringing” for teaching her the value of discipline and hard work. How much of her success was due to her attitude and persistence—traits ingrained before she arrived in college? And it wasn’t really her skills or degree that got her hired; it was her ability to persuade her future boss she deserved a shot. Who should get credit for her gumption?

For now, our main way of evaluating the knowledge and skills that graduates developed in college is to look at their wages and employment rates. When focused on narrow windows of time, such measures can make for inhospitable terrain for higher education.

Unemployment among workers under 25 is high by historical standards, and the pay for those who do have jobs is often low, which suggests that colleges have reason to fear efforts like the Obama administration’s to rate them, in part, by the wages of their graduates.

Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa found that 53 percent of the graduates they studied earned less than $30,000 a year in part-time or full-time jobs, or had no work at all. But the authors think measures like those proposed by the president can be too narrow or misleading as a way to judge colleges; some graduates, for example, might hold low-paying jobs that benefit society. “The wages don’t look good, but it doesn’t mean they’re not producing or civically engaged,” Ms. Roksa said in an interview.

Still, they think colleges do bear some responsibility for helping students find a career path. “The habits students leave college with are shaped by the four years colleges spend interacting with them,” said Mr. Arum.

Finding that path often takes a while because many recent graduates settle in new cities and need time to figure out their skills and interests, says Heidi S. Shierholz, a labor-market economist. That’s partly why unemployment among young workers is consistently higher than for the work force in general, she says in a recent paper for the Economic Policy Institute. Since 1989, during good times and bad, the unemployment rate for workers under 25, a pool that includes both high-school and college graduates, has been more than double the overall rate, she found.

Higher education isn’t where the problem is, she says. “There’s nothing universities can do about the broader weakness in the labor market,” Ms. Shierholz said in an interview. “We have low aggregate demand for goods and services, and businesses are reluctant to hire. That’s what’s going on. Full stop.”

She favors policy remedies, like increasing deficit spending on infrastructure needs, to stimulate economic demand. “There are lots of things to do,” she says, “but none involve the behavior of universities.”

The rise in total debt incurred by students has also increased pressure on colleges to demonstrate the bottom-line payoff of the degrees they offer. Student-loan debt from private and public sources topped $1-trillion in 2011.

That is an eye-popping number, but it reflects, in large part, the growing number of people attending college.

Worries about individuals saddled with debt may be hyped, Beth Akers and Matthew M. Chingos argue in a June paper for the Brookings Institution. “The monthly payment burden faced by student-loan borrowers has stayed about the same or even lessened over the past two decades,” they write. While those findings sparked controversy, they echo data released last year by the U.S. Department of Education in its report, “Degrees of Debt.”

The conviction that American universities serve an explicitly economic purpose dates in many ways to the founding of our public higher-education system. The Morrill Act of 1862 assigned the nation’s public universities the duty of teaching people practical skills that help them do their jobs.

Structural shifts in the labor market over the past three decades have thrust higher education even more deeply into the core of the economy, says Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

After the recession of the early 1980s, high-paying manufacturing jobs started disappearing amid advances in technology, tougher foreign competition, and declining union power. Those jobs were often replaced by ones in finance, health care, and computing, many of which require college.

“We needed more skill in the work force,” Mr. Carnevale says. Postsecondary institutions were the most logical vehicle to develop that skill. “We turned to colleges and said, ‘You have a new mission.’ ”

Many faculty members chafe at the primacy that this mission has assumed. “Higher education really is a work-force-development system,” Mr. Carnevale says. “It doesn’t like to see itself that way.”

Another turning point came about a decade ago, David H. Autor, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes in Science. An “explosive rise” in the wage differential between high-school and college graduates took place from the 1980s through the early 2000s, followed by a plateau in 2005. Growth in college completion, Mr. Autor argues, led to this leveling off, reflecting laws of supply and demand.

Between 2004 and 2012, the supply of new college graduates rose more than in previous decades. Demand, as signaled by wages, stagnated. “As this influx of supply took hold,” he writes, “the college wage premium halted its enduring rise.”

The wage premium may be shifting. Debt incurred for graduate programs is growing rapidly. Graduate school, particularly for master’s degrees, is increasingly seen as necessary to gain purchase on the middle class.

“We’ve made graduate school part of our find-a-job strategy,” says Ben Miller, a senior policy analyst who studies student-loan debt for the New America Foundation, “and that’s a problem.”

We have also made a college education, particularly a bachelor’s degree, part of our create-a-job-strategy, says Mark S. Schneider, a vice president of the American Institutes for Research. “Governors and state legislators look at this as their biggest human-capital investment,” he says. Higher education also remains one of the biggest investments made by individuals and families because of the steady drumbeat of studies touting a degree’s payoff. “We’ve been trained and taught,” he says, that “a bachelor’s degree is the best investment you’re ever going to make.”

Mr. Schneider’s analyses of first-year earnings of graduates, by major, in six states preceded the Obama administration’s proposals to rate colleges. People must choose to pay tuition to specific institutions and enroll in certain programs, and they need the kind of information he publishes, he says, because it will help them make those investments wisely.

Otherwise, the value of a degree is described in big aggregate numbers that can mask important distinctions in the results that individual colleges produce and how well they prepare their students. When the larger economy struggles, those differences are felt acutely. In such times, the lofty economic expectations attached to higher education may prove hard to shake.

“Colleges,” Mr. Schneider says, “may be really sorry they went down this road.”

Should Everyone Go to College?

For poor kids, ‘college for all’ isn’t the mantra it was meant to be

By Scott Carlson May 01, 2016

Last fall a new instructor taught a remedial writing course at a community college in Maryland. Most of her students came from low-income backgrounds. Many had gone to broken schools. That they had made it to college at all was a feat.

In teaching them to write, she faced challenges that went to the foundations: Several students had no clue how to construct a sentence, let alone a thesis. She tried to help them catch up, picking books they might relate to, reviewing multiple drafts of essays. When students copied from websites, she gave them lessons on plagiarism and another chance to do the work.

She reached the end of the semester disappointed and exhausted. While some students had excelled, about half failed. A few had come close to passing, so she asked administrators what to do. The answer: If they failed, they might drop out, so she should pass them. Although it seemed unfair to the students who had completed the course work, she did.

The experience left her wondering whether the weaker students were really college material, and what would happen when they moved on. A knottier question was: Why were they in college at all?

In 2016 in the United States, society pushes high schoolers to go to college. The watchword is access: There are college-completion goals to hit to keep the country competitive, a wage premium to earn to secure a decent living. This is a movement that people in and out of higher education grapple with, uncomfortably. Professor X, writing a few years ago in The Atlantic, described the students who had floundered in his introductory English courses. By making them strive for academic standards they struggled to meet, he wondered if he was doing them more harm than good.

Decades ago, students who were deemed “not college material” — particularly those who weren’t white, no matter their potential — were often tracked into vocational training, manual labor, manufacturing, and other work that didn’t require academic study. Today, because of the decline of such jobs, a transformation in grade-school education, and the increasing skills required in professions like sales and service, a path to a career almost must pass through higher education.

“We have a system now that has one pathway,” says Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “The only logical outcome of that is postsecondary, which is where the job training goes on in America.”

Policy makers and pundits call the agenda “college for all,” referring to certificates and two-year degrees, in addition to four-year degrees. But many laypeople — and even some educators — devalue career and technical education, taking “college” in that prescription more traditionally. They believe success means a bachelor’s degree, and the only question is how to help everyone afford it. Bernie Sanders, in particular, has been vocal about college for all, having sponsored a Senate bill by that name to eliminate tuition and fees, and lauding the European countries that offer “free college.” What often goes unmentioned, however, is that, in places like Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands, which have strict tracking systems, not everyone gets to go.

Here in the United States, we have one of the lowest college-completion rates in the developed world, a fact we’re fervently trying to change. Effectively, we have set up a “pay to play” barrier to the highly valued jobs, and now we’re urging everyone to clear it. But for low-income students especially, that pursuit comes with substantial costs and risks, like dropping out with debt or, even with a degree, lacking the social and professional connections to land a lucrative job.

Some policy makers have responded by clumsily encouraging lower-performing students to take a different course through postsecondary education. State lawmakers in North Carolina want to route those with middling grades through community college, a move that educators decry as discriminatory. The debate over whether everyone should go to college — and what “college” means — has prompted remarks that the higher-education system should be overhauled. Marco Rubio, for example, has said that the country needs fewer philosophy majors and more welders.

For the most part, though, policy makers have ignored viable practical training. “If you go up to Capitol Hill, you speak to staff or policy makers, none of them went to vocational education,” says Mary Alice McCarthy, a senior policy analyst at New America. “None of their children went into vocational education. And they have no experience with it.”

Yet not all students thrive on academics. Can schools and colleges fairly present and value an array of educational and employment pathways, while still offering late-blooming learners a chance at a four-year college and beyond? The challenge is figuring out, at crucial junctures, who should go which way.

Here’s how we started to believe that everyone should go to college.

Decades ago, there were many ways to train for work, good work, and educational tracking played a role. Proponents of the practice said it let instructors focus on the needs of students at specific levels of ability and prevented “teaching to the middle,” which didn’t sufficiently challenge advanced students.

But by the 1970s and ’80s, civil-rights advocates and education researchers were pointing out that minority students were disproportionately set on lower-level tracks, taught by weaker teachers, relegated to rote learning, and burdened with the perception that they were dumb. Studies found that those students scored lower on tests than they would have if they’d been tracked higher.

The GI Bill and the explosion of community colleges in the 1960s had already expanded the understanding of whom college was for, and in 1983 the presidential report “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” was the “educational equivalent of a declaration of war,” says Mr. Carnevale, of Georgetown. Comparing students’ performance on standardized tests in the United States and other countries, the Reagan administration sparked an obsession with achievement, the dismantling of vocational tracks, and the mantra of college for all, he says. To remain competitive and stem a moral and economic decline, America needed to raise its standards.

Some experts say today’s push to get every student to go to college could actually be doing more harm than good.

Schools began to push general education as preparation for college. “In a fit of progressiveness, we threw away vocational education,” Mr. Carnevale says. Instead, he says, the curriculum favored “ever higher levels of abstraction in subject matters where it is not clear why you learn them at all until you are ready to go to college.”

Around the same time, because of automation and consolidation in industries like manufacturing and mining, a whole class of middle-skills, middle-income jobs began to disappear. Those jobs didn’t require a college education, but the ones in health care and technology that have to some extent replaced them often need at least some postsecondary training. What used to be called vocational education has been rebranded as career and technical education, but it has struggled for recognition and funding.

The result of those trends is a bifurcated labor market, Mr. Carnevale says. More high-skill jobs require a college degree, most commonly a bachelor’s degree, and pay well. By contrast, low-skill jobs requiring a high-school diploma, if that, will remain numerous, but wages for those jobs have gone down. That’s why, in the last 40 years, the wage premium associated with a four-year college degree has doubled.

While the supply of degree holders has increased, so has the demand for those graduates. The employees of decades past packed tomatoes into cans on a factory line. Today machines have taken over a lot of that work, and the employees are coming up with 30 varieties of canned tomatoes, with different labels, marketing pitches, and so on. Ostensibly, a college degree delivers the skills needed for that, or, many employers believe, college graduates possess more of those skills.

Job ads for positions once filled by high-school graduates — administrative assistant at an apparel company, customer-service representative at a rental-car agency — now say “bachelor’s degree required” or “some college preferred.” The labor-market-analytics firm Burning Glass has found that such “upcredentialing” happens more for jobs with less-defined skill requirements. Employers may just be using college degrees to filter applicants by perceived ability, or by class or race.

National college-attainment goals — promoted most prominently by the Obama administration and the Lumina Foundation — include certificates and associate degrees, but the bachelor’s degree still holds primacy. The New York Times writer David Leonhardt made the case last year for “college for the masses,” noting the positive effects, like individuals’ earning potential, of even “marginal students” striving for four-year degrees. When President Obama unveiled his plan to make community college “as free and universal as high school,” it was billed as a way to “earn the first half of a bachelor’s degree.”

In the past few years, manufacturers west of Minneapolis have been desperate to hire welders, poaching employees from one another. With the Dunwoody College of Technology, the companies started an accelerated training program: one semester to get a job starting at $32,000 a year. Ads aired on the radio, blurbs ran in church bulletins, and recruiters visited high schools and community events. But the response they often got was, I’d rather go to college.

Dunwoody’s career and technical education carries — maybe even reinforces — the old stigma that clung to vocational education: something less for the less fortunate, or a consolation prize. “I hear comments like ‘My son or daughter wasn’t successful in college, so I sent them to Dunwoody,’” says Rich Wagner, its president. Ironically, he notes, the nonprofit institution enrolls many students who already have a four-year degree but aren’t landing a job. The college has a 99-percent placement rate for its graduates, Mr. Wagner says, with an average starting salary of $40,000.

“How do we get parents to understand and appreciate that these occupations are viable pathways to the middle class?” he wonders. “The biggest frustration is that there doesn’t seem to be a national voice on this.”

There is, however, a growing chorus questioning college for all. Mark S. Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research, has said that competencies, not bachelor’s degrees, may become the more valuable currency in the job market. The Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson has argued that the movement “cheapens” four-year degrees and stigmatizes those who choose another path.

Katherine S. Newman, provost at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Hella Winston, a journalism fellow at Brandeis University, wrote in The New York Times last month that the education system should create more routes “straight from high school to a career,” noting more than 600,000 open jobs in manufacturing, which some say is not in decline but in a renaissance. Other countries have expanded training for such jobs, they said, while we have let it atrophy.

James Rosenbaum, a sociology professor at Northwestern University, has long argued against the B.A. for all, particularly low-income students. In the old days of tracking, guidance counselors and others acted as gatekeepers, he says, steering even promising students away from college. Today, especially in poorer school districts, those counselors each serve hundreds of students, and because of the unfortunate history and current campaign, they are reluctant to discourage any aspiring collegegoers. As a result, Mr. Rosenbaum says, they put unprepared students on an unrealistic path.

The pressure of the national college-attainment agenda is misguided, says Diane Ravitch, the prominent education historian and professor at New York University. “The Obama administration keeps saying that everyone needs to go to college, and that we are going to have the highest college-graduation rate in the world by 2020, which is ridiculous,” she says. The highest share of college graduates in the world doesn’t equal a healthy economy, she adds. “We are chasing a fantasy.”

Our economic and social problems stem more from the wide gap between rich and poor, and jobs sent overseas, says Ms. Ravitch, than from too few people pursuing a bachelor’s degree. We’re projecting economic insufficiencies onto the education system, she says. “The college-for-all talk is like fairy dust sprinkled over the conversation.”

Progressives have been the great champions of college for all. Arguing that some students (probably lower-income and minority students) shouldn’t seek four-year degrees, at least not right out of high school, feels dangerously close to the old tracking system.

But we never really stopped tracking. In the early 1990s, Shaun R. Harper’s school in Georgia tracked students. Mr. Harper, who is black, was stuck in the middle, the general-education track, while most of the white kids, he remembers, were in college prep. A professor of education now at the University of Pennsylvania, he sees such tracking as more subtle than the old system, but still “inescapably raced.”

“Gifted and talented,” “Advanced Placement,” and “honors” may have replaced “college prep” as the labels in some schools, he says, but similar sorting is at work. For example, in 2014, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that black students in public schools in South Orange and Maplewood, N.J., occupied only one-fifth of the slots in AP courses, even though they represented more than half the enrollment in the school district. The department pushed the district to help more black students get into those courses.

De facto geographic segregation by race and class means that entire schools are set on tracks. Many cities’ public schools are considered broken, and relatively wealthy families there hustle to get their kids into charter schools, pay tuition at private and parochial schools, or move to more-affluent neighborhoods, where home prices essentially serve as a barometer of public-school quality. As those children move into higher education, elite colleges largely enroll white students, while black and Hispanic students are more likely to attend open-access institutions, according to a report in 2013 by Mr. Carnevale’s center at Georgetown.

Despite general encouragement to go to college, guidance or the lack thereof can still hamper ambitions. As part of a research project a few years ago, Mr. Harper interviewed dozens of high-achieving students in working-class and low-income neighborhoods of New York City. Guidance counselors were referring the students to the City University of New York and State University of New York systems, he says, even when they had the grades to get into Penn, Harvard, or the University of Virginia.

“When we talked to the guidance counselors, they would say, ‘Kids from here don’t get into schools like that,’” Mr. Harper says. So-called undermatching, the phenomenon in which high-achieving, low-income students don’t apply to or attend competitive colleges, is an insidious form of tracking, Mr. Harper says. But even he doubts whether all students should be pushed into four-year programs.

“I want to make college possible for anyone who wants to go and stands a shot at succeeding,” he says. But plans for free community college or free public college, and more high-school graduates striving for bachelor’s degrees, would have unintended consequences, he says. Even more than happens already, poor students would go to the free institutions, while rich parents would send their kids to expensive private colleges.

“What we are going to see, I’m afraid, is an amplification of the stratification of higher education,” says Mr. Harper.

By getting rid of tracking, paradoxically, we have devalued a set of occupations and the training for them. “There is a narrative out there where it’s college or nothing,” Mr. Harper says. “Most of us need someone to cut our hair,” he says. “We need hotel workers. We need auto mechanics.”

 He is not calling for the country to re-establish intentional tracking. “But when there was a vocational track, there was at least a narrative that it is OK to be an auto-shop worker or a hairdresser,” he says. “Because we pretend that there are no tracks, we don’t even talk about those options.”

Maybe it’s right that our educational and economic systems push the four-year degree. Some students will drop out along the way, but those who finish will have earned currency on the job market and be prepared (at least on paper) for graduate school and even more remunerative work. Meanwhile, technical training can be subject to the vagaries of specific industries, and in physical occupations like welding, employment lasts only as long as one’s body.

But despite the focus on college completion, the national graduation rate at four-year institutions still hovers around 60 percent, about half that at open-access colleges. Clearly, four-year degrees aren’t right for everyone, especially in a country that increasingly expects individuals to shoulder the cost. If you’re poor, then, is it better to be told you’re not cut out for college, and guided toward training that may cost less and lead to a solid job? Or is it better to shoot for a bachelor’s degree, with the risk that you might fail, rack up debt, drop out, and be worse off?

“Everyone knows that we need to make career-focused education work, and the question is, How do you do that without falling back into some sort of tracking?” says Ms. McCarthy of New America. “It’s just not an American thing to track kids into some sort of career at age 16.”

There may be solutions that wouldn’t force those choices. Many policy advocates — like Ms. McCarthy and Mr. Rosenbaum, of Northwestern — want to lower the stakes of pursuing a B.A. by instituting more “degree ladders” or “stackable credentials,” to let students benefit in the job market as they accumulate credits. Under that approach, initial courses in any degree program would be oriented toward professional skills or specific fields of study. That would lead to badges or certificates, which could become an associate degree, which could lead, in time, to a bachelor’s, as students built up their knowledge, experience, skills, and maturity.

“With each step, they get a payoff and a success,” Mr. Rosenbaum says, “and if life interrupts with a crisis, as it often does for low-income students, they have got whatever they accomplished in the meantime.” Such a step-by-step approach could also help motivate students.

College leaders like to say that higher education’s greatest strength is its diversity. But it can also be a liability.

For now, students who want to move through the system’s tiers have a difficult path. Credits from community colleges or career and technical colleges often don’t transfer easily to four-year institutions. Many of Dunwoody’s students were effectively stranded. So the college set up a B.A. itself. Now students can get a certificate to work in, say, a machine shop, come back for a two-year degree in tool programming, and later return for a four-year industrial-engineering degree.

Some students who have a hard time with straight academics, says Mr. Wagner, Dunwoody’s president, can excel when they apply lessons to a practical problem. He sees students finally grasp math when they work with gear ratios in car transmissions. Mr. Wagner knows that kind of student well. He failed out of Lehigh University when he was 18, but his success in technical education led him to later earn bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.

But as long as career and technical education is culturally marginalized, its quality will suffer, and its integration into mainstream higher education will stall. “We gave it over to the for-profits, which shows that we don’t care about it,” says Ms. McCarthy. “It’s an afterthought.”

While education can raise individual fortunes, it has historically been a great divider, structured to evaluate people and their abilities, and to separate them. Instead of accepting that reductionist approach, why not recognize individual talents, and find ways to enhance them? Some academics understand medieval literature or political philosophy in ways most of us never will. But others who never went to college may know how to deal with a “check engine” light in a car or a leaky dishwasher. We need both philosophers and plumbers, but our system values one more highly than the other.

In forging a path forward, Mr. Carnevale asks, “are you going to be a realist or idealist?” The idealist presses on with college for all, with more education, hoping that will solve the problems of inequality.

The realist, he says, respects job training and skills, counting career and technical education as a solid option. But if job-training programs were to grow in high schools, if educators steered more students into technical education, Mr. Carnevale says, those moves would need a certain packaging to make them politically acceptable. They would have to be billed as a path to college.

Scott Carlson is a senior writer who covers the cost and value of college. Email him at scott.carlson@chronicle.com.