An Opportunity Agenda to Replace ‘College for All’
Emerging alternatives to traditional four-year degrees are shaking up the education industry.
K-12 education issues are often cast today as a story about Americans divided on what we want from our schools, a culture war between left and right. While there are fundamental disagreements, this story is mostly wrong. The result is a collective illusion—a false narrative—that ignores a stubborn fact. Americans broadly agree that we should end what’s been a central goal of K-12 education for many years: “college for all.”
In its place, Americans want a new opportunity program for young people, in which a college degree is one of many pathways to success. Facilitating this “opportunity pluralism” is a common-sense governing agenda for policymakers, based on a more flexible K-12 system. It also empowers the domestic realists of the ideological heartland, led by civic pluralists who nurture civil society by building different K-12 education pathways programs for young people. These programs can develop a young person’s agency by providing him or her with the knowledge, relationships, and networks—profitable knowledge and priceless relationships—he or she needs to pursue opportunity and human flourishing.
The name “opportunity pluralism” suggests broad appeal. What faction, left or right, could argue with a plurality of pathways to success? Yet K-12 education for many years has been dominated by the singular ideal of “college for all.” This model aims to move nearly all K-12 students down the same path, from elementary to middle to high school to college to a degree and, finally, to a job.
Certainly, college degrees are valuable, both professionally and personally. But the fixating on the degree as the golden ticket to employment has led to a harmful phenomenon Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel terms the “credentialist prejudice.” Credentialism describes the bias that makes the college degree the preferred engine of upward mobility and key pathway to a flourishing life—to the growing exclusion of the uncredentialed. Credentialism harms workers and employers by barring people, particularly the disadvantaged, from meaningful work opportunities, and sharply limiting the pool of qualified workers whom employers can hire.
That's the bad news. The good news is that there is ample evidence that today many Americans, including young people, no longer subscribe to college for all. There are at least four reasons for this change.
First, the pandemic changed what Americans want from K-12 education. A March 2023 Wall Street Journal-NORC poll found nearly six in ten (56 percent) Americans say a four-year degree is “not worth the cost because people often graduate without specific skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off.” A “Purposes of Education Index” by Populace, a Massachusetts nonprofit, reports that Americans ranked preparing students for college 47th out of 57 on their list of education priorities, despite having perceived it as one of school systems' top ten priorities before the pandemic. Americans' number one priority is for students to “develop practical skills,” but only one in four (26 percent) think students in fact do. This is followed by being able to “problem solve and make decisions,” “demonstrate character,” and “demonstrate basic reading, writing, and arithmetic.” The K-12 education policy agendas of many of the nation’s governors align with these sentiments—further evidence of a growing consensus.
Second, current Gen Z high-schoolers do not see college through the same rose-colored glasses as did prior generations. Five national surveys of Gen Z high schoolers show a collapse in enthusiasm for college. In January 2022, around half (51 percent) said they plan to attend a four-year college, down 20 percentage points down from a high of 71 percent in May 2020. Nearly one-third of Gen Z respondents indicated a preference for post-high school educational experiences of two years or less, rather than a four-year college experience.
Third, employers are turning from degree-based hiring to skills-based hiring, shifting from using college degrees to evaluate a job seeker’s qualifications to using the prospect's practical knowledge and experience. This approach is used by major companies such as Google, Apple, IBM, Mastercard, and Bank of America. The federal government and some states are turning to skills-based hiring for their personnel needs. This change is popular. A Gallop survey reports that seven in ten Americans believe that employers should hire job candidates based on skills and experience instead of a college degree, though fewer than half say that their employers do so.
Finally, some of the benefits associated with a degree are fading. A Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis study shows that the college income premium declined for recent college graduates, while the wealth premium fell among all cohorts born after 1940. Additionally, for any non-white head of household born in the 1980s, the wealth premium associated with a college degree cannot be distinguished from zero. This is true also for those with a postgraduate degree. As the authors conclude, “the economic benefits of college may be diminishing.”
For these reasons (and more) the credentialist bias at the heart of college for all—which would universalize college and direct young people through a single pathway to opportunity—should give way to an approach that expands the number of pathways to opportunity. Today, civic entrepreneurs are creating different K-12 career pathways programs with better ways of preparing young people to pursue opportunity and human flourishing. They integrate education, training, employment, support services, and job placement—spanning K-12, postsecondary, and workforce development.
These programs include approaches like apprenticeships and internships, career and technical education, dual enrollment in high school and postsecondary education, career academies, boot camps for acquiring specific knowledge or skills, and staffing, placement, and other support services for job seekers. In general, they acquaint students with the demands of the workforce and employers by engaging them in work with adult mentors. Such connections produce new forms of social capital by fostering cross-class friendships, social networks, and information sources among students, teachers, work mentors, and other program supporters. They also nurture the development of local civil society by involving many sectors of the community that, through these programs, help individuals lay the foundation for opportunity and human flourishing.
These education pathways programs are bipartisan. Consider the statewide initiatives created by governors and legislators from both political parties, with Delaware and Tennessee serving as prime examples of well-established initiatives. Similar programs exist in such politically diverse states as California, Colorado, Texas, and Indiana. Local programs feature collaborations between K–12 schools, employers, and civic partners.
Five common features characterize these programs:
- Learning linked to credentials: Programs teach academic and technical skills linked with local labor employer needs. Students receive a credential upon completing a program. As a result, they have a leg up on getting a good job.
- Focus on work and careers: Students explore work and careers beginning early in school, with guest speakers and field trips. In high school, they participate in work placement and mentorships that are integrated into classroom instruction and connect them with adults.
- Adult advisors: Advisors help students make informed choices and overcome barriers they encounter, thus avoiding job placements based on race, ethnicity, or other demographic considerations. Advisors help students develop confidence and knowledge so they can make their own choices about their pathways.
- Community partnerships: Employers, industry groups, and other local institutions create civic partnerships focused on program success. These include a written agreement clarifying responsibilities, governance structure, and funding sources.
- Supportive laws and policies: Local, state, and federal laws, policies, and programs can (and do) create a framework for program development. This is central to a program's success.
There is convincing evidence that these programs succeed. A Fordham Institute analysis showed at least five benefits. First, these programs are not, in fact, a path away from college, as those who take career-oriented courses are just as likely as their peers to attend college. Second, they increase graduation rates. Third, they improve college outcomes, especially for women and disadvantaged students. Fourth, they boost students' incomes. Fifth and finally, they enhance other skills, such as perseverance and self-efficacy.
These pathways program create an opportunity program built on two elements, which I call the “opportunity equation” and “opportunity pluralism.” The elements of the equation are knowledge and relationships—what students know and whom they know. Simply put, young people need more to succeed than general cognitive and specific technical knowledge, or habits of mind. They must also cultivate relationships, or habits of association. These habits are the building blocks of individual opportunity. In short: Knowledge plus Relationships equal Opportunity.
Habits of mind and habits of association are closely linked, as the economics of skill-development illustrates. Harvard economist David Deming showed that the significance of cognitive skills has declined as a predictor of labor-market wage success, while the predictive importance of non-cognitive skills, especially social skills, has increased. As I have written previously, these social skills include “high levels of nonroutine, interpersonal exchanges with others” such as communication, cooperation, collaboration, social intelligence, and conflict resolution.
Further, after age 35, life-cycle wage growth is substantially greater in occupations that entail nonroutine, high variance jobs that are decision intensive and require worker adaptation.
In other words, there’s a clear wage premium to having social skills. Deming writes, “strong cognitive skills are increasingly a necessary—but not a sufficient—condition for obtaining a good, high paying job. You also need to have social skills.” The implications are clear: Students who are able to cultivate interactions and build networks with a variety of community stakeholders will be much better positioned for career success than those who have taken a schooling-only path. We must build pathways on the opportunity equation.
The second part of an opportunity program is opportunity pluralism, offering individuals many different paths to opportunity. This approach is consistent with efforts to help people acquire credentials that are valued in the labor market and that young people begin earning in school. Opportunity pluralism is not about discouraging individuals from pursuing a college degree. Rather, it positions a variety of options as valued credentials—recognizing the ways that knowledge, networks, skills, and experience lead to good jobs and a fulfilled life. It does not try to equalize opportunity on a single pathway (such as college for all) but rather makes the nation’s opportunity infrastructure more pluralistic, valuing both educational and employment outcomes. In short, opportunity pluralism ensures that every young person—regardless of background—has multiple pathways available to reach good jobs, a satisfying career, and a flourishing life.
This new opportunity agenda differs sharply from the vocational education of old, which placed students into different tracks and occupational destinations based mostly on family background. That sorting process often carried with it racial, ethnic, and class biases: Immigrant students, low-income students and students of color typically enrolled in low-level academic and vocational training, while middle- and upper-class white students took academic, college-preparatory classes. The opportunity pluralism paradigm also presents non-degree credentials as building blocks toward associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, rather than as a lesser alternative to such degrees. It allows colleges to “unbundle” the four-year degree into building blocks, or stackable credentials, that are earned while working and, as a career progresses, that lead to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
Pathways programs also provide young people with social and psychological benefits. By exposing young people to occupations and having them explore and experience them, students are able to “try on” different futures and envision themselves as productive workers, thereby developing an occupational identity. Students in these programs can also develop a broader sense of clarity about who they are and what their interests, values, and abilities are in life, thereby developing their vocational selves. Finally, opportunity pluralism helps develop a young person’s self-agency, along with the dynamism and innovation that local initiatives and the institutions of civil society nurture.
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Opportunity pluralism isn’t simply a good idea. It is also broadly popular, and already beginning to take place. Americans want a new educational paradigm for young people that replaces college-for-all with opportunity pluralism. This approach does not discourage young people from pursuing a college degree but rather offers multiple ways to receive valuable credentials based on habits of mind (the knowledge that pays) and habits of association (the relationships that are priceless). We must cast aside the collective illusion and false narrative of irreconcilable culture war differences in education. This opportunity program recognizes that Americans are creating a new K-12 ideological heartland, a term coined by Ryan Streeter of the American Enterprise Institute, that describes not a physical place but rather a shared state of mind.
The ideological heartland is where domestic realists live. It’s the terrain of those not given to ideological political extremes. Domestic realists may lean left or right, or even be part of that forgotten group called moderates, but they care more for practical action than culture-war posturing. The narrative of deeply entrenched disagreement on K-12 issues might lead us to think of domestic realists as a small minority. On the contrary, roughly two-thirds of Americans live in this ideological heartland. Right now, domestic realists are hard at work creating programs that nurture civil society through the new social networks and communities made up of the young people and adults who participate in them. While the full fruits of this growing movement have yet to be reckoned, cumulatively they suggest a sea change in education that will enable people to thrive in the 21st-century workforce.
This article is part of the “American System” series edited by David A. Cowan and supported by the Common Good Economics Grant Program. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.