Is college still relevant? One Good Question with J.B. Schramm

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Agency / Education Equity / One Good Question / Post-Secondary Education

This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.”  These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

Every school success paradigm I’ve seen involves similar components: excellent educators, school leaders, data and measurement, standards, etc.—but what you never see is “students” as part of the solution.  We have this sense that students are vessels into which education is to be poured.  In order to move forward in our communities, we need young people from our communities to take charge.   They need to have confidence and be equipped as critical thinkers, problem solvers, strategists, and risk takers.  They need the motivation to challenge power structures and be problem solvers in the broader community. We don’t win, and our nation doesn’t become a more just place, simply by informing students. We need to offer them the responsibility to take charge of their education and future.

The fact is, young people are most influenced by their peers.  Young people today are taking responsibility for more and more parts of their lives, either because adults are abnegating obligations, or because technology is giving youth more opportunity to control their own communication and networks.  Young people influence young people, tremendously.  We are missing a huge opportunity when we define students as the objects of education.  The key that we need in our investments is to show that young people can be drivers of their education.  They can take charge of improving achievement in their schools.  The paradigm changes when you start with the premise that the young people are on your side, that they can be driving education gains not only for themselves but also for their classmates.

I learned these lessons working at College Summit, the nonprofit championing student-driven college success.  They coined the phrase #PeerForward, which means to find and train a community’s most influential students in college access and leadership so that they run campaigns with their peers to file FAFSA, apply to college, and explore careers.  In this model, the peers are owning the outcomes, not just following adult voice.  That’s a very powerful model.  We all care more when we own something. When you’re talking about under-resourced institutions, the most powerful resource that schools need is already there in abundance – the students!! They can solve their problems. They want to achieve and they want to be challenged.  For teenagers especially, just when they are hungry for greater challenge, we so often keep them in the same sort of structure as elementary school.  Let’s take off the training wheels and give them the chance to take on bigger challenges.

Given all of the contemporary discourse about the ways that traditional K-12 education is not preparing students for the new global economy, is college still relevant?
A year ago, I co-authored a white paper with Andy Rotherham and Chad Aldeman that outlines today’s post-secondary paradox.  On the one hand, college is more valuable than ever. In immediate term the wage premium is about 70%, the highest it’s ever been.  From a medium term perspective, the number of jobs requiring postsecondary education is climbing. Today, just 45% of Americans have a post-secondary degree, and by 2025, 65% of jobs will require one.  If you want to be in the running for that set of jobs, education beyond high school is essential. (For more information, see Lumina Foundation’s A Stronger Nation report.)

At the same time, college is riskier than ever, with historic debt loads, and employers questioning the value of many postsecondary programs.

So how can students handle the post-secondary paradox? Young people need to be smart shoppers about their post-secondary education. You can no longer blindly get a degree from anywhere. Some colleges do a much better job of educating and graduating students than others; plus students need to navigate a wider array of options for quality postsecondary education today. You can no longer meander across majors, without considering career goals. That’s not to say students should lock into a career path in 9th grade. Teens are not going to all of a sudden know what they will want to do in 20 years; data suggests that they change jobs even more frequently than previous generations. Students benefit when they consider careers that interest them, and the economic potential of those fields, and then thoughtfully explore them.

As smart shoppers, students can consider which range of careers intrigue them, which postsecondary programs will get them on the right path, and which institutions most effectively graduate students from similar backgrounds.  Unfortunately due to budget crunches, school districts are dedicating fewer and fewer resources for college and career planning. Just as the postsecondary paradox leaves students more in need of college-going know-how than ever before. Not surprisingly, college-going rates are down, especially for low-income students.

Students, parents and community organizations need to step up, help schools prioritize college and career planning, and access the resources—including influential studentsrecent college grads, and volunteer mentors — close at hand. (Check out: College Advising Corps, College Possible, and iMentor)

The need for postsecondary education, and in fact deeper postsecondary education, becomes more pronounced the farther out we look. Some labor theorists predict we’re on the verge of the greatest workforce shift since the Industrial Revolution. Over the next few decades, large employment sectors will disappear, they say, due to automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, etc.  How can we prepare for a world like that?  I think we need to be skeptical of hyper-focusing on training students for what the job market requires right now.  Narrowly directing students to fill today’s job gaps may lead to employment and aid certain industries in the short term, but it’s not in the service of our kids, nation or industry in the long term. Rather, we need to raise the conversation about the future of work with students, employers, education innovators, and technologists. Also, I believe it’s a smart bet that this brave new world will favor people who can lead, create, problem solve, work in teams, and persevere. We call those attributes Power Skills. These are the skills employers cite today as being most in demand.  The most effective colleges develop Power Skills well, as do challenging work experiences, and demanding community service work—for example, we have seen Power Skills develop in College Summit Peer Leaders running peer campaigns in their high schools. For America to prosper relative to advancing economies around the world, we need to develop this kind of deeper learning in all students, in every corner of our nation. The question isn’t “whether” postsecondary education. It’s which kind of postsecondary education. Now is not the moment to soften ambitions, especially for students from low-income and under-represented communities climbing uphill. Nor is it time to resign ourselves to status quo postsecondary education.  We need to challenge our students, educators, employers and technologists to stretch, figuring out better ways for students to learn and take charge of their future.

J.B. Schramm

J.B. Schramm

J.B.’s One Good Question:  How can young people drive their education and improve student achievement in their communities?

J.B. Schramm chairs the Learn to Earn initiative at New Profit, a venture philanthropy and social innovation organization that provides funding and strategic support to help the most promising social innovations achieve scale. J.B. leads the organization’s ecosystem innovation work for college access, postsecondary education and career, helping colleagues in the field equip 10+M more Americans for career success by 2025.


The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

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