According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. spends roughly 0.1% of its GDP on active labor market policies (such as job search assistance or job training), which is one-sixth of what Switzerland and Germany spend. Long-term decreases in investment in career and technical education as well as other forms of vocational and professional training have made “college-for-all” practically the only route to economic opportunity in the U.S.

There are at least four major problems with focusing policy solutions only on the academic pathway to opportunity:

    1. The college-for-all strategy isn’t working for most people. Overall, 69% of Americans age 25 and over have less than a bachelors’ degree, according to the Census Bureau.
    2. The college-for-all approach assumes that skills can only be taught in the classroom. Outside the trades (registered apprenticeships) and licensed professions, there are few well-recognized, work-based equivalents to an academic degree in the U.S. that effectively signal an individual has reached a certain level of competency.
    3. Focusing on a single college-prep pathway does not actually address the tracking problem. The U.S. used to have a stronger vocational pathway as a counterbalance to college prep. However, vocational education was criticized for “tracking” low-income students and students of color into lower-wage occupations, in large part because schools made early decisions on which pathway to sort students into based on “ability” or previous achievement. Rather than providing a more rigorous alternative to college prep or allowing students to choose their own pathway, we cut back alternative pathways and forced those not on the college track to find their own way into the labor market, often with little guidance.
    4. The rapid pace of technological change will require ongoing re-skilling and more agile companies and workers. The future of work is changing the structure, organization, and level of digital integration in the workplace.

In short, a college-for-all approach can never meet the diverse talent development needs of all (or even most) employers and job seekers in an age of extreme technological disruption and digital transformation. While issues such as expanding college access for marginalized populations and the student debt crisis clearly deserve policy attention, they are not the only problems with our talent development ecosystem.

Read the full article about preparing for the future of work by Annelies Goger at Brookings.