The Imperatives and Casualties of College Readiness
Essays By //
Hanseul Kang & Noel Ginsburg
Do students need to earn a college degree in order to be successful in life? The answer, of course, is no. There are many household names who have achieved great success in business, for example, who never graduated from college, including Ellen DeGeneres, Ted Turner, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs and Rachael Ray. Undoubtedly, there are countless others whose personal stories would dispel the notion that success cannot be achieved in the absence of a college education.
But let’s ask the initial question posed differently: Does attending college maximize or improve a young person’s career opportunities and chances for success in life? If the answer is “yes,” then should the goal be to prepare every student in our K-12 system as though their destination is a college or university? What are the implications — positive and negative — when a system focuses intently on preparing every child for higher education?
In the essay pairing that follows, Hanseul Kang, state superintendent of Washington, D.C.’s public schools, defends the need “to set high (academic) expectations for every student and believe they can reach them regardless of their background.” She notes that “ a growing number of jobs require some level of postsecondary education.”
A college education was an imperative chapter in Kang’s own inspirational story. Still, for Kang, what’s most important is not necessarily whether a student goes to college right away — or at all — but whether adults in the system are tracking students for college or career. She says, “ to set different expectations for students based on what we think their pathway might be can have significant negative impacts.”
|Civil Discourse Prompts|
|Does our K-12 system adequately emphasize college readiness?
From the earliest grades, do our children see themselves as eventual college graduates?
Are we ready to embrace a career path as an equal to college as long as it is for other children and not our own?
If K-12 education is redesigned to place students on either a college or career track, who should be involved in making this decision?
How do we ensure that these decisions are made equitably?
The second contributor on this topic, Noel Ginsburg, a successful businessman and the CEO of CareerWise Colorado, would likely agree with Kang on the power of a college degree to produce opportunity for a young person. However, according to Ginsburg, few people actually hold college degrees. “In the U.S., for years we’d been telling children that a college degree would assure their success. Yet, only one-third of the country had one,” Ginsburg says. The U.S. education system was amazing for a small portion, but it left 70 percent of the population behind without a dignified path to career success.”
Ginsburg left college early to launch and lead Intertech Plastics. He imagines a K-12 system that helps students who are not college-bound receive experiential learning opportunities and career-focused skills development. The launch of CareerWise Colorado, designed to advance this vision, is modeled on the K-12 experience in Zürich, Switzerland, where 70 percent of students participate in an apprenticeship.
Despite their distinct perspectives that have been shaped by vastly different personal experiences, Kang and Ginsburg make clear that the real imperative may be giving students the opportunity to be ready for a future of their own making.
|Hanseul Kang||State Superintendent|
|District of Columbia|
Hanseul Kang has led the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the District of Columbia’s state education agency, since 2015. Under her leadership, the district has continued to make strides in student achievement and OSSE has worked to sustain, accelerate and deepen this progress. Superintendent Kang started her career as a high school social studies teacher. She later worked as a managing director of programs in Teach For America’s District of Columbia regional office and as chief of staff for the Tennessee Department of Education.
It’s that time of year when high school seniors are beginning to make decisions on their next big step in life. Some are hearing back from four-year colleges, some may be thinking about enrolling in technical schools or community colleges and others are planning to go straight into the workforce. It’s a pivotal moment for our students, and as educators, we have tremendous influence over those choices — which is exciting but also comes with real responsibility.
Should all students go to college? That’s a question that sparks widespread debate. When it comes to college and career readiness, we can acknowledge that not every student will attend a four-year college immediately after high school, but we also know that a growing number of jobs require some level of postsecondary education. Ultimately, it is not our job as educators to decide which students will choose college and which students will not. Instead, it is our responsibility to set high expectations for every student and believe they can reach them regardless of their background. We must fully prepare them to make their own choices — for their next steps right after high school and the many additional steps they may take over the course of their careers.
We should be holding the bar high for every student. Today’s jobs are more likely to continue changing and evolving over time. Our students who don’t enroll in higher education right away may choose to go to college later in life, but all of them are likely to have to continue to learn new knowledge and skills and grow in different ways over the course of their careers. This is why I believe it is critical to prepare every student for academic challenges and expose every student to opportunity.
I also strongly believe that to do otherwise, to set different expectations for students based on what we think their pathway might be, can have significant negative impacts. I had some experience with this life lesson when I transferred to Georgetown University for my junior year of college and met with my advisor to make sure I was on a path to graduate on time. I was both nervous and excited in that moment — Georgetown had been my dream school and I had wanted to go there for so long before I actually got to arrive on campus. But my excitement faded quickly in that meeting when my advisor told me that he didn’t think I should try for an honors path. He explained that at Georgetown you not only had to complete and defend a thesis project, but also maintain a required GPA, and transfer students typically struggled to maintain it. I thought that he must know best and reluctantly followed his advice.
That experience stuck with me. It wasn’t just that I missed out on a rich, academic opportunity because an adult thought I would not be capable. It was also that this person had questioned my abilities and that made me doubt myself as well. I think my advisor genuinely thought he was sparing me from what he saw as highly likely disappointment. But the actual impact of his words was to seed a growing doubt that lingered in my mind. Reflecting on that experience today, I imagine what it must be like for younger students to have mentors and educators in their lives who doubt what they can do in their futures or track them into — and, in some cases, away from — opportunities.
When we change academic expectations based on background — even out of the best of intentions or without realizing what we are doing — it’s often our most vulnerable student populations that end up with the short end of the stick. The best thing to do for our students is to truly believe anything is possible for them, create a variety of pathways to graduation that engage all students and align challenging curriculum to rigorous standards that put students in the best position for success regardless of their chosen career paths.
Early in my career, while working as a high school social studies teacher in rural New Mexico, I had a student who wanted to be a U.S. Marine and nothing else. Even with a clearly defined career path, the student hadn’t acquired the knowledge and skills needed to successfully reach his career goals. Those around him left him with the perception that a career in the military did not hinge on academic achievement. I learned later that he had failed the standardized assessment test for the armed forces three times. As a school and an education system, we failed to prepare him academically and support him in achieving his dream — which denied him something deeply important and deprived the Marines of a talented individual.
“When we change academic expectations based on background — even out of the best of intentions or without realizing what we are doing — it’s often our most vulnerable student populations that end up with the short end of the stick.”
When I spend time in schools, I am most encouraged when I see educators and leaders working hard to create opportunities for students. I recently visited a high school that turned all of its ninth grade English and biology classes into honors classes to ensure all students had access to the academic rigor these classes offered. This move came after a long series of conversations — among educators, families and students — about why the make-up of the school’s Advanced Placement (AP) classes in upper grades looked so different from that of the overall school, and in particular, why there were so few students of color in those advanced courses. The school realized that relying solely on middle school counselor recommendations to place students into ninth-grade honors classes was leading to the challenges they saw — and so they decided to make a dramatic shift and create “Honors for All” in ninth-grade English and biology. The school did so carefully by taking the time to communicate thoroughly about what they were doing and why, ensuring they planned carefully to maintain the rigor of honors classes and setting up a summer preparation class for students to develop specific skills. Two years into those changes, they believe that they’ve seen a real shift in both how many and which students will be taking AP courses in 11th grade next year. They’ve also seen a shift in perceptions of both students and teachers of what is possible.
When we begin to shift our thinking to what it will take to make achieving at high levels possible for every student, we can change the course of their entire lives. This is exciting but also comes with real responsibility. We must hold every student to the same high bar and prepare them not only for this first next step after high school but also for the many other next steps their academic and professional careers will take.
|Noel Ginsburg||Founder & CEO|
Ginsburg is founder and CEO of Intertech Plastics as well as founding executive chair of the board and CEO for CareerWise Colorado, a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to building the middle class by closing the skills gap through experiential learning.
It was in 2015 that I made my first visit to Switzerland in hopes of bringing home to Colorado ideas for improving the talent pipeline of my own manufacturing business, Intertech Plastics. I had only planned to stay for half of the 10-day institute because I was busy with my day job running Intertech. But by the third day, I already knew what I was learning wasn’t just going to change the way I operated my business. What I was learning was the answer to a bigger question — one that I had been pondering for more than 20 years.
Almost 40 years prior to that first Swiss pilgrimage, I was a junior in the business school at University of Denver, mocking up plans to start a business for a class and, incidentally, dropping out of college entirely to turn those plans into reality — Intertech Plastics. Even at that young age, starting my business wasn’t just about making a living. I wanted to use my business as a platform to help make a difference in the world, and I believed then, and still believe today, that the best investment anyone can make is in our young people.
With that mission in mind, 30 years ago, I became a founder of the Colorado “I Have a Dream” Foundation, and 20 years ago, my wife, Leslie, and I adopted our own class of “dreamers.” They lived in a neighborhood that had a 90 percent high school dropout rate. We spent a decade working with them, and after those 10 years, 92 percent graduated from high school and had the promise of a college scholarship. And I wondered — if we could do this for 42 dreamers, could we do this for a city, a state or maybe even a country?
By the time I arrived in Zurich, I had spent 20 years asking that question and searching for a solution. Finally, the answer began to materialize in front of me. In Switzerland, like in the United States, about one-third of the population gets a higher education degree. But unlike in the United States, the remaining 70 percent go through an apprenticeship. The process begins with career exploration in middle school, so by the time students reach 10th grade and have to make the decision between an academic or a career path, they have an idea of what they want to do. For the majority of students who choose apprenticeship, they dedicate the next three years of their education to spending two days each week in the classroom and three days in a business. Apprenticeship offers 270 occupations to choose from spanning all industries, not just traditional trades.
In the U.S., for years we’d been telling children that a college degree would assure their success. Yet, only one-third of the country had one. The U.S. education system was amazing for a small portion, but it left 70 percent of the population behind without a dignified path to career success. At the same time, businesses in a range of modern industries like IT and healthcare had reported severe skilled-labor shortages — another issue the U.S. had that the Swiss did not. It seemed to me that apprenticeship was solving problems on both sides of the equation for Switzerland, and I believed that it could do the same for us too.
When I returned from Zurich, I was inspired to make the change that I believed to be necessary, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it alone. I reached out to the Governor of Colorado at the time, John Hickenlooper, and shared with him what I’d learned. In early 2016, we returned to Zurich together, filled a bus with 48 business leaders, superintendents of schools, and foundation heads from across Colorado and spent five days making site visits to companies ranging from Swisscom to Pilatus Aircraft, each of them employers of youth apprentices. On the last day of the trip, I asked everyone, “If you think this is right for Colorado, what is your commitment?” Based on the commitments made that day, our delegation returned home and within months launched a youth apprenticeship system — CareerWise Colorado.
In just two and a half years, CareerWise has built the nation’s first statewide modern youth apprenticeship system and launched 240 apprenticeships at more than 70 businesses with students from seven school districts and 41 individual schools. This spring, our marketplace has opened for the third time and will grow our number of apprenticeships to nearly 500, placed with more than 120 businesses, in even more schools and communities across the state. The system is working, and it’s only going to grow from here. Our goal is to reach 20,000 apprentices in the system by 2027, equivalent to 10 percent of all Colorado high school students. And for CareerWise itself, we’re targeting financial sustainability within the same time frame, sustained by the fees businesses pay to participate in the system, and eliminating our need for long-term philanthropic or government support.
Apprenticeships are providing multiple options for students that lead to careers and college if they choose. In the rigorous three-year program, paid apprentices are gaining meaningful work experience, and businesses are realizing a positive financial ROI as they develop a skilled talent pipeline for hard-to-fill positions. The success stories I have heard already from apprentices and their employers are truly remarkable.
Today, when I walk the floor of Intertech Plastics, I observe the work that our own apprentices are doing to advance our thinking and innovation in our 39th year of operations, and I am grateful for what they bring to our business and what we can do to further their education and career. It is clearly a win-win scenario!
Modern youth apprenticeship can truly change our country by providing the skills young people need to capture the high-paying jobs of tomorrow while enabling our businesses to compete successfully in a global marketplace. Growing to scale across our country will not be easy, but nothing good ever is!