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Report says not every student needs four years of college

By Sally Holland, CNN
  • A new report calls for a shift in the way the U.S. looks at college degrees
  • Too much emphasis is placed on college as the only path for success, the report says
  • The report advocates "clearly delineated" pathways to all major occupations

Washington (CNN) -- Every one of the 3,000 students at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, has met with a guidance counselor and come up with individual goals that include plans for graduating high school and beyond.

"I'm surprised by how invested the students have gotten in creating the goals for themselves," said guidance counselor Elisabeth Neace.

While students at T.C. Williams have thought about their future, many high school students have not, and leave high school unprepared for adult life.

That transition from secondary school to employability is the focus of a new report released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education that advocates a shift in the way the United States looks at college degrees.

"It is long past time that we broaden the range of high-quality pathways that we offer to our young people, beginning in high school," according to the Pathways to Prosperity report.

It says that in the United States, too much emphasis is placed on attending and graduating from a four-year college as the only path for success. While 47 million new jobs are projected to be created in the United States by 2018, only a third of those will require a bachelor's degree or higher, according to the report. Thirty percent of those new jobs will require an associate's degree or a post-secondary occupational certificate.

"In our view, the U.S. system would be greatly strengthened if the pathways to all major occupations were clearly delineated from the beginning of high school," the report says. This would let students and their parents clearly see what courses of study and other experiences would "best position them to gain access to that field," the report adds.

Also, the report advocates a larger role for future employers by linking classroom learning to actual jobs through paid internships, and providing more access to jobs related to the students' field of study while they are still in school. The report recommends that future employers work with educators to design programs of study for students.

"Our goal should be that beginning no later than middle school, all students should have access to this system of employer involvement and assistance," according to the report.

"Unless we are willing to provide more flexibility and choice in the last two years of high school, and more opportunities for students to pursue program options that link work and learning, we will continue to lose far too many young people along the path to graduation," says Robert Schwartz, who heads the Pathways to Prosperity Project at Harvard.

Traditionally, U.S. students receive career advice from middle and high school guidance counselors, but the report points out that under the current system, the average ratio of students to counselors is 500 to 1.

The counselors at T. C. Williams feel extremely lucky to have a ratio of 151 students to one guidance counselor. The high school restructured its administration for the 2010-2011 school year and added an additional five counselors to its staff of twelve.

"The lower ratio means the counselors are having access to students in ways we haven't been able to before," according to Greg Forbes, the director of secondary school counseling there. The additional staff allows them to have more interaction with the students.

"It's a different type of feel when you are talking about customizing and personalizing education for each and every child," said Forbes.