Tamar Jacoby | The college-for-all model just isn’t working

Instead of going through Congress and making the initiative bipartisan, President Barack Obama acted alone in mid-November, promising $100 million in grants to specialized high schools — such as New York City’s Pathways in Technology Early College High School — that prepare students for technical careers.

The president’s on the right track, but why make it partisan? Schools like P-Tech are an idea whose time has come — one that can be adopted by both parties and by business as well as government.

Vocational education fell from favor decades ago because it was seen as an inferior track for less able students.

More Americans attend college today than ever before — this year, 42 percent of young people 18 to 24 years old. Even among high school students in the bottom quarter of their classes, 90 percent expect to go to college. And there’s no question that, for many Americans, college is a ticket to the middle class.

But there’s also mounting evidence that the college-for-all model isn’t working.

Almost half of those who start a four-year degree don’t finish on time; more than two-thirds of those who start community college fail to get a two-year degree on schedule.

Even students who graduate emerge saddled with debt and often without the skills they need to make a decent living.

Meanwhile, companies in a range of sectors — manufacturing, construction, health care and other STEM (science, technology, enginerring and math) fields — report severe skilled-labor shortages. With more than 11.3 million Americans out of work, there are 3.7 million unfilled job openings — due largely to the growing mismatch between workers’ skills and employers’ needs.

The good news is that questions about college for all have created space for a burgeoning education reform movement that’s rethinking and reshaping the options open to young people preparing for jobs in the middle of the skills ladder — jobs that require more than high school but less than a college degree.

Call it “voc ed 2.0” or — today’s term — “career and technical education.”

Some CTE advocates are still focused on college; they see technical training primarily as a pathway to college. Others are skeptical that the trade-offs can be finessed this easily. They argue for sharper distinctions and harder thinking about priorities.

But both camps agree that new, improved technical education is a key piece of the puzzle, and it’s time for the nation to invest in it — big time.

The movement has spawned a wealth of experiments: CTE high schools, “early college” high schools, new investment in community colleges, industry-driven craft training, career mentoring, internships, apprenticeships and more.

Some offerings are better than others, and it can be a challenge for young people to choose, picking their way through what one researcher calls a “Wild West of programs.”

Reformers agree that there’s a desperate need for better metrics and more reliable standards. But ultimately, for students, there’s only one standard that counts and one way for the new vocational education to compete with college: Is the program a reliable route to a highly skilled, well-paying job?

This is where business comes in.

Employers facing short-ages can do well by doing good, partnering with educators to set standards and design curricula. After all, they know better than educators what skills are needed in the workplace.

At a time of record deficits and revenue-neutral state and federal budgeting, employers are a natural source of funding for vocational training. And only employer involvement can guarantee that bottom line for students — that CTE actually leads to jobs.

The challenge is that few U.S. employers see the next-generation workforce as their responsibility.

Some employers are stepping up. P-Tech is a partnership between IBM and New York City public schools.

Several brand-name restaurant chains — Darden, Brinker and Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen — sponsor training in culinary arts and restaurant management through the National Restaurant Association’s ProStart program. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Siemens, Kaiser Permanente and Pricewaterhouse Coopers, among others, partner with stellar CTE programs in cities across America.

But these forward-thinking companies are the exception that proves the rule. Business needs to do more if CTE is to reach its full potential. And just writing a check or inviting students to the workplace for an occasional visit isn’t enough.

The key ingredient of the most effective CTE programs is on-the-job training combined with classroom learning. Sometimes called apprenticeship, sometimes dual training or craft training, the combination can be expensive and difficult to structure and maintain.

But nothing works as well, and it’s a proven, long-term win-win — for trainees and for the employers who invest in them.

Voc ed is dead. Long live the new voc ed. The question for the future: Will today’s ferment take hold? Will Democrats and Republicans come together behind it, and will it produce a lasting transformation of American education?

It all depends how seriously employers engage.