A major reference point for many educational writers is the 1950s. In the US, this was an era when you didn’t need any education after high-school: with strong unions and the post-wat manufacturing boom, many men went to work in trades, while women either stayed home or worked in nursing, schools, or offices (think Mad Men). Almost 75 years later, a college degree is practically a necessity; yes, there are the Bill Gateses, Mark Zuckerbergs, and Peter Thiels of the world, but for each of those outliers there are hundreds of high school diploma-holding students in low-wage, low-benefit jobs. Even at a time when minimum wage is rising, bachelor’s degree holders make at least a third more (depending on gender). So it’s become common to say that the college degree is the new high school diploma that first step that sets students into the working world.
These trends are not new, and have been criticized for promoting inequality. In turn, colleges have lamented that job preparation is not the point of higher education (although non-professionals will argue that it is. Now, high schools are taking steps to incorporate career-based education into their curricula, hoping to increase graduation rates and help students find employment after graduation.
Some of these strategies are updates to familiar vocational training. Students might practice repairing electronics instead of cars, for example. In many countries in Europe, this has long been a norm; students are ‘tracked’ at an early age (the exact age varies by nation). Germany, for example, has long been admired for its apprenticeship-learning model, as has Switzerland.
Other initiatives are more novel. In California, a new curriculum asks students to devise long-term career plans in an attempt to encourage graduation and post-secondary education, whether at four-year or two-year colleges. Counselors note that asking students to make concrete statements of future goals helps them see the value in their degrees, whatever the level.
At a time when workplace training for adults is increasingly under scrutiny, criticized for inefficacy and high costs, low-cost public programming that aims to increase workforce participation in needed fields is welcome. A similar proposal is being mooted in Australia for the control of university-level career tracks arguments about the oversupply of certain fields at the expense of others will be familiar to American lawyers or Canadian teachers.
Will we see the day when the high school diploma returns to being the ticket to workforce entry? The rising costs of college make cost-savings strategies a popular topic. At the same time, once the degree is required for a job, it’s hard to make it not required — that is, to decrease the perceived prestige of a particular career. For emerging fields, high school might be enough — but the barista on the corner might still have a bachelor’s degree.