When the report from the National Commission on Excellence in Education rolled off the presses 40 years ago, it could have easily met the same fate as nearly every other volume churned out by the Government Printing Office: promptly tucked away on a shelf and forgotten. Most of the report’s authors, an 18-member panel made up primarily of school and college administrators, weren’t household names. If anything, their work product looked a little light, coming in at just a few dozen pages.
Yet what it did have going for it was a provocative title: “A Nation at Risk.” And for those compelled to crack the thing open, it very quickly became apparent that this was not the usual mumbo jumbo of bureaucrats and technocrats.
“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today,” the commission declared, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” At a time when Japanese cars were widely perceived as being superior to American models, the Germans were stealing away U.S. market share in machine tools, and the Koreans were making inroads in steel, it was a warning that resonated.
Elevate academic standards in our K-12 schools, the commission implored, or we would soon be swamped by a “rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future.”
These and other incendiary passages from this “open letter to the American people” instantly caught fire. They were splashed across the front page of every major paper and led the evening news. Interest in “A Nation at Risk” became so intense, some 6 million copies were distributed.
Speaking at the White House, President Ronald Reagan told the commission he was “confident that America’s students, parents, teachers and government officials will join me in listening closely to your findings and recommendations.” Reagan may have never been more accurate. As one news outlet has characterized it, “A Nation at Risk” became the “36 pages that bent the arc of education.”
In the wake of “A Nation at Risk,” curricula at most high schools became more academically demanding, with added requirements in mathematics, science, English, and social studies. More homework was assigned; more classroom time was scheduled.
But by ushering in these academic reforms, the report’s greatest legacy may well have been this: It reinforced the idea that unless every student wound up going to college, we had failed them—and they had failed themselves.
In particular, “A Nation at Risk” cemented the bachelor’s degree, in the words of a Century Foundation analysis, as “more and more the gold standard for the transition from youthful dependency to adult independence as a worker and as a fully empowered individual and citizen.”
The result is that—despite some recent, high-profile pushback against this “college-for-all” mindset and mounting skepticism about the “return on investment” of a college degree—we have consigned those who don’t have a four-year diploma to lesser-than status. Along the way, we have overlooked the fact that people express their brainpower in all sorts of ways, many of which can’t be captured by how fast they divide polynomials, how adeptly they can dissect Moby Dick, or how high they score on the SAT.
The proportion of the population affected by this bias is enormous, and the costs are staggeringly high.
Six out of 10 American adults don’t have a four-year college degree, and the majority of high school graduates today still don’t enroll right away at four-year institutions. More than a third of those who do begin a bachelor’s program don’t finish. And yet “the bachelor’s degree has increasingly become a passport not only to a good job—the kind of job that is worth doing and whose rewards have steadily increased over the last half century—but also to good health, to longevity and to a flourishing social life,” Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton writes in his new book, Economics in America: An Immigrant Economist Explores the Land of Inequality.
The data Deaton points to is overwhelming. Among families where at least one member had a college degree, median income in 2019 was 24% higher than it had been in 1970. But for families without a college-degree holder, it was only 4% higher. In 1990, wealth was split evenly between those with and without college degrees; today, three-quarters of wealth is owned by college graduates.
And then there is the most devastating statistic of all: Between 1992 and 2021, the average life expectancy for someone in America with a bachelor’s degree grew, extending from 79 to 83 years. But the average life expectancy for someone without a bachelor’s degree shrank, falling from nearly 77 to 75 years. This means that where college graduates could once expect to live about two years longer than non-college graduates, they’re now unlikely to face their mortality for an additional eight years.
Schools say that they are readying students for college and career, but most have set up systems and incentives that leave little doubt: Only the first part of the equation truly matters. Compared with academic programs, career and technical education, or CTE, receives hardly any government funding—just pennies on the dollar.
“The alternative paths are so poorly developed,” says John White, who was Louisiana State Superintendent of Education from 2012 to 2020.
The biggest casualties are those high school students, many in high-poverty districts, who wind up unqualified for either college or the start of a decent career. They haven’t been prepared academically, a fiasco that has been masked in recent years by dubiously inflated grades. But, thanks to the mantra of college for all, they haven’t been exposed to CTE. Millions find themselves in this predicament, left to settle for a dead-end job or worse.
Industry is also suffering. As tens of thousands of construction, transportation and green energy projects across the United States look to get underway, with funds flowing from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act, some are having a hard time breaking ground because of a shortage of people with the right skills. “Unless federal officials begin to narrow the funding gap between college prep and career training, the construction industry will continue to struggle to find workers,” Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, has cautioned.
All of which suggests that the national commission got it backward 40 years ago: The real risk to America is not that we haven’t done enough to raise academic performance and pave the way for everyone to some ivied campus; it’s that we have never properly supported people who are eager to—or should be encouraged to—develop interests and skills that you can’t necessarily find in a textbook.
At the same time, we have never bestowed proper respect and remuneration upon those who hone their abilities through experience acquired outside the confines of college. When companies hire, they routinely pass over those who have ample skills for those who have a degree.
We have, in short, created a lone benchmark for economic and societal success that a majority of Americans have not met—and likely never will.
A Harvard president’s plea for vocational education
Just as the federal government began to fund pre-college vocational programs through the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, educators voiced fears that these classes would “become a dumping ground of the school for the dull, idle, vicious and incorrigible,” as officials in California put it.
“Persons having but a superficial knowledge of the requirements in trade and industries assume that almost anybody can become a mechanic,” the Pennsylvania State Department of Public Instruction noted in 1922. “With this thought in mind, they try to make vocational classes the dumping ground for … boys and girls who are ‘problems.’”
No one did more to try to change things than James Bryant Conant, who became the president of Harvard in 1933 but never seemed to forget his working-class upbringing in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester.
Conant would become the nation’s leading proponent of “the comprehensive high school” — an egalitarian stronghold meant to provide a good “general education” for everyone while offering plentiful opportunities for those who were “academically talented,” as well as a “first-class vocational education” for those who were excited to move into the trades.
At the heart of Conant’s vision was the sentiment that “one of the fundamental doctrines of American society is equality of status in all forms of honest labor”—and, therefore, those who excelled in the academic realm and those who excelled in the vocational were both worthy of high esteem.
Illustration by Tevy Khou
“Our schools must be concerned not only with the able scholar, but with the artist and the craftsman,” Conant said in a speech at the University of California in 1940. “They must nourish those whose eye or ear or manual dexterity is their greatest asset. They must educate others whose gifts lie in an ability to understand and lead their fellow men. The school curricula must include programs for developing the capacities of many who possess intuitive judgment on practical affairs but have little or no aptitude for learning through the printed page.
“I see signs everywhere of enormous strides forward in such matters,” Conant went on, optimistically. “We look forward to the opening of many channels which lead to a variety of attractive goals.”
Whatever signs Conant was seeing, they never in the end materialized. As with so much in American life, racism and classicism made sure of that.
‘Old poison in new bottles’
Through the teens and 1920s, it was European immigrants who were shunted into vocational education programs, regardless of their academic potential. “Those of the lower classes . . . were considered laggards, ne’er-do-wells, hand minded and socially inefficient,” Jeannie Oakes, a professor of education at UCLA, has written.
Later, it was Blacks and Hispanics who were tracked into vocational classes — many of these classes low in quality and ineffective in imparting any valuable skills. “In the era following Brown v. Board of Education, when schools were forced to enroll students they did not want,” one study has explained, “vocational programs served to reinstate segregation not between schools but between classrooms,” with people of color invariably being directed “toward terminal, low-wage jobs.”
Over the years, we’ve corrected the most blatant of these abuses. But, in certain instances, we’ve overcorrected. At least some school officials are now leery of prevailing upon students of color to take CTE — even those who would clearly benefit — out of concern that they’ll be seen as racist. Meanwhile, there is evidence that Black and Hispanic students who do end up taking CTE are clustered in lower-paying fields such as hospitality, as their white classmates are disproportionately slotted into information technology, manufacturing and other higher-paying domains.
Tracking is also still prevalent on the academic side. “We just call it by different names: advanced placement versus regular classes, honors versus non-honors,” says Kamilah Legette, director of the Reducing Inequities in Student Education Lab at the University of Denver. One study dubbed the current situation “old poison in new bottles.”
A 2021 research paper cited numerous barriers that Black and Hispanic high school students encounter as they try to make their way: “counselors who encourage or discourage students from taking advanced courses along racial lines”; school officials who dole out “information about advanced courses unevenly by race and socioeconomic status”; and administrators who apply “prerequisites (whether stated or hidden) to minority students” while “waiving them for white students.”
“In a fair world,” the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has commented, “the journey from childhood to the early stages of a career would be defined more by young people’s unique talents and interests than by differences in the opportunities available to them. In reality … their paths are too often defined less by their talents and more by characteristics such as their race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic or class status.”
Tony Carnevale, the center’s director, is even more blunt. “There are two systems,” he says. “You go to a four-year college, and you live happily ever after. That’s mostly for white people. The other system doesn’t work well at all.”
For many minorities, one answer has become community college. But these two-year institutions are severely underfunded, leaving students who often have the most needs with relatively few resources. Cliff Harbour, a veteran educator who for 14 years was a community college faculty member and administrator in North Carolina, has seen lots of young people pursuing associate’s degrees flounder and drop out because of insufficient support.
“The kids that go on to Duke, Rice and Stanford—it’s a totally different experience for them,” Harbour says.
On paper, there are tens of millions of “good jobs”—average pay: $55,000 — for which you don’t need a bachelor’s degree. And there are multiple pathways for those in high school to land one of these positions one day. But in practice, our preoccupation with everyone getting a BA has stunted these other avenues, including replacing or combining classroom learning with on-the-job learning. The weakening of unions, which provide apprenticeships that lead to middle-class jobs, has alsotaken a toll.
“In the end, we need more options,” says Carnevale.
Nobody is arguing that every high school student—college-bound or not—shouldn’t get a rigorous education in the basics: math, science, English and the humanities. The best CTE programs blend academic knowledge and hands-on technical know-how in a way that can engage people who may languish in a more sterile classroom setting.
“Math becomes a tool in the toolbox,” says Jim Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education. “You reach for a crescent wrench or you reach for a mathematical formula.”
It isn’t hard to find examples of stellar career-oriented choices for high school students — from Linked Learning programs to P-TECH schools to innovative skilled trades classes across the country. The trouble is, impressive as these efforts are, they amount to very little in the scheme of things. It’s as if we’ve been running a series of demonstration projects for many years. But while many have proven to be worthwhile, a true counterpoint to college-for-all never gets to scale.
Big gains, and big gaps
Forty years before “A Nation at Risk” was published, about 5% of Americans 25 or older had a bachelor’s degree or higher. In 1983, when the report came out, nearly 19% did. Now, some 38% do.
Even while bearing the millstone of racism, the percentage of Black people 25 or older with a four-year degree has risen sharply over the past decade, from about 21% to nearly 28%. Among Hispanics, the number has jumped to nearly 21% from less than 15%.
All of this is, in and of itself, a good thing. Despite escalating concerns about the burdens of student loan debt (including on the millions who don’t complete school) and questions about how well graduates are being equipped for the job market, there is generally a big payoff for earning a college degree. On average, those who have a diploma from a four-year institution enjoy far higher incomes than those who don’t.
Illustration by Tevy Khou
College confers other blessings as well: a chance to explore a wide range of subjects and discover a passion, to learn to think critically, to evolve socially, to become a grown-up while there are still some guardrails around.
But while college surely profits many Americans, it also divides us. By conflating a noble ambition—college opportunity for all who want it—with the one-size-fits-all message that “everyone should go to college,” we have stigmatized and, in many cases, undervalued those who are smart and driven but prefer a different way forward, or by dint of finances or other circumstances must find one.
Those on both the political right and left have generated the conditions allowing such feelings to fester. But the left may be most guilty.
“To the liberal class, every big economic problem is really an education problem,” Thomas Frank observed in his 2016 book Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?More than fighting tooth and nail for a living wage or battling to revive organized labor, the Democratic establishment has, according to Frank, come to largely rely on a single “social theory” to lift people up: “If poor people want to stop being poor, poor people must go to college.”
Far more than the presidents who came before him, Joe Biden has reined in such rhetoric.
“I’ve been part of Democratic administrations where, basically, the solution to labor market woes was to go to college,” Jared Bernstein, the chairman of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, remarked to Ezra Klein of the New York Times in July. “The president has seen through that.” Biden, said Bernstein, “realizes something everybody should know. About two-thirds of the workforce isn’t college-educated. And there’s no version of Bidenomics that leaves two-thirds of the labor force out.”
Still, Klein couldn’t help but notice that even Biden has had difficulty pulling back on a college-heavy agenda. While the president has “talked up his support for unions and apprenticeship programs,” Klein pointed out, he has actually put forth “more proposals to help people go to college than to help them get good jobs without a degree.”
D’Arcy Philps, a Washington lobbyist who specializes in education and workforce issues, says that Biden isn’t alone in this. For quite a few years now, Philps has witnessed a growing recognition on Capitol Hill of the
importance of breaking the college-for-all stranglehold on policy. It’s now to the point where politicians on both sides of the aisle “are falling all over themselves to talk about the need for CTE,” he says.
“But that’s about it,” Philps is quick to add. “Funding has essentially gone nowhere.”
The numbers are stark. The United States spends an estimated $460 billion a year on education for students in high school and middle school, when it makes sense for career programming to begin. No more than $15 billion of that—about 3%—is dedicated to CTE, a review of federal and state expenditures shows. If you’re not on a glide path to college, Philps says, “there’s really not much for you.”
Changing employers’ minds
The immensity of the CTE funding gap is indicative of the magnitude of the challenge ahead: America’s college-for-all fixation can’t be stopped by fiddling with the current system. Instead, “we need a whole new system,” says John White, the former Louisiana schools chief.
This is the case not only among educators but also employers.
More than 70 million U.S. workers are what the nonprofit Opportunity@Work calls STARs—those “skilled through alternative routes” rather than a bachelor’s degree. These routes include community college, military service, public and private training programs, and learning on the job.
Many times, these workers boast the necessary abilities to move from lower-wage to higher-wage positions. But they never get the chance because they lack a diploma from a four-year college and get screened out from the get-go, falling victim to “degree inflation.”
The upshot: It typically takes a STAR 30 years to reach the starting wage of a recent college graduate. “In other words,” a 2022 study from Opportunity@Work concluded, “our labor market equates four years of learning in college with three decades of work experience.” The consequence is an entire generation that has “worked since 1989 with no appreciable upward mobility.”
“It’s just madness,” says Byron Auguste, a former top economic adviser to President Barack Obama and the co-founder and CEO of Opportunity@Work, which is spearheading a national campaign to “tear the paper ceiling.” “Learning matters. But you can learn at many different places, not just at a four-year college.”
There are some hints of progress. More than 15 states have eliminated the need for a four-year degree for most government agency jobs. Several prominent companies, including IBM and Accenture, have started to look for skills, instead of credentials, in their hiring. Such moves prompted the Burning Glass Institute, which conducts research into learning and work, to proclaimlast year an “emerging degree reset.”
But the key word there is “emerging.” At the moment, “what’s actually happening is negligible,” says Joe Fuller, a professor at Harvard Business School and a senior fellow at the Burning Glass Institute. While it has become “essentially de rigueur to set aside iron-clad degree requirements” at more and more companies, he says, those official corporate proclamations have yet to have much impact on the front lines.
“Policies don’t hire people,” Fuller says. “Hiring managers hire people. And they still assume degree holders are most qualified.”
Which leads, perhaps, to the biggest hurdle of all: Real change—whether in corporations or schools—will need to be led and accepted by those in power, the vast majority of whom hold four-year or advanced degrees.
“Nobody wants to imagine that the system that has advantaged them is disadvantaging others,” Auguste says. “They’re comfortable with the way things are.”
Some may even be self-righteous about it. “In an unequal society,” political philosopher Michael Sandel writes in The Tyranny of Merit, “those who land on top want to believe their success is morally justified”—that “they have earned their success through their own talent and hard work.” What they may not consider, or frankly care about, is how much this “undermines the dignity of work and demeans those who have not been to college.”
Four decades before “A Nation at Risk,” James Bryant Conant called for the “building up of more than one ‘elite’” in America. Four decades afterward, we continue to disregard his plea at our peril.
Rick Wartzman is co-president of Bendable Labs, a technology, consulting, and research firm that specializes in lifelong learning, workforce development and job quality. This piece was adapted from a longer essay in Capital & Main. You can read the full version here.
Author: Rick Wartzman