Once upon a time, getting students to college felt like enough to ensure their success.
“In order to create students to be competitive in a global economy, we have to begin to do a better job of linking the educational pipeline to the jobs of the future,” said Kelli Wells, executive director of education and skills for the GE Foundation. She spoke at a summit held earlier this week by College For Every Student, the Essex-based group that helps students in urban and rural areas become college- and career-ready.
The problem: Many of those jobs, Wells said, don’t necessarily exist yet. And while students have gotten the message that they need college degrees if they are going to get good jobs, they often don’t leave college with the tools they need to succeed in them.
The two-day summit, now in its fourth year, was held at CFES’ headquarters. More than 40 leaders from corporations, philanthropy and education attended the summit. GE co-sponsored the event along with Trinity College Dublin, which is in the midst of a three-year partnership to implement the CFES model in several Irish schools; several representatives of that program also attended.
“What we have to train students for are the actual skills that are going to be necessary,” said Wells, a keynote speaker at the event. While Wells and others stressed the importance of traditional academic subjects, they also stressed the need for students to gain knowledge in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. And at the same time, students also need to pick up a host of intangible skills – called soft skills by some, and essential skills by others – that are critical to the workplace.
Those essential skills, such as perseverance, leadership, teamwork and grit, are at the heart of CFES’ mission. The group works with students in more than 200 urban and rural schools to imbue them with those attributes and prepare them for college. Mentors, educators and others are enlisted to help elevate students’ aspirations.
Not all students, though, are willing – or able – to tackle the cost of a college education. Some speakers at the event urged educators to consider embracing new models that would put more emphasis on acquiring marketable skills, and less on necessarily earning a degree. Robert Schwartz, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, cited statistics showing that half of all STEM jobs don’t require a bachelor’s degree. He suggested that educators consider paths such as Switzerland has taken, integrating classroom work with career training; Switzerland is among the most economically competitive countries in the world, he said.
Some practitioners also acknowledged a need to consider different models. Dr. John Fortune, a trauma surgeon at the University of Vermont Medical Center, recognized that years of college and medical school are not the only routes into that field. “Kids who think they’re going into medicine think they have to become a physician and that’s not the case at all,” he said.
Radiology technicians, physical therapists, nurses and others can all earn wages far above the median salary in the United States, he said, while incurring far lower costs than those who go to medical school.
And even those students who do get advanced medical degrees would do well to learn new skills. For centuries, he said, physicians have been expected to have encyclopedic knowledge of a range of facts – facts that are now easily accessible in any database. Instead, he suggested, students would be better off learning how to communicate with patients, and show leadership, and act professionally.
Rick Dalton, CFES’ president and chief executive, said his group has been expanding its efforts to make sure that students not only gain those skills, but also get more help finding the best path to achieve what they want from life. “Students in many of the urban and rural areas we serve just don’t have access to the information that can help them understand what a college degree can do for them, or identify jobs that match their own skills and interests,” he said.
It’s easy to see why, he said: Dalton pointed to statistics shared by one speaker at the summit who said that New York City’s school system employs just one college guidance counselor for every 400 high school students. Philadelphia has fewer than three dozen in all.
“It’s about more than getting students to college,” Dalton said. “It’s about giving them the tools to succeed in life. We’re fortunate to be able to work with some very bright, influential people to develop concrete ways to make this happen.”
Written by Ken Aaron
- Responding to a Global Crisis: Helping One Million More Low-Income Students Attain College Degrees (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- CFES Global Summit in Essex Featured in Huffington Post (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- GE-Published Report Identifies Steps to Close Skills Gap for Low-Income Students (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)