Brian Kelsey| Civil Analytics

Despite the recent debate over rising costs and expected return on investment of university tuition, the evidence is pretty clear that a four-year degree is still your best insurance policy against unemployment. However, that doesn’t mean it’s the only path that leads to a successful future. Workforce development experts point out that career technical education (CTE)–career clusters, stackable credentials, and the like–can provide an alternative path to a successful future, and therefore should be invested in and offered alongside curriculum that focuses on preparing students for university admission.

But perhaps the “multiple paths” argument is not the best way to have this conversation. Richard Rhodes, President and CEO of Austin Community College, seems to agree. A few very good sentences by Ralph Haurwitz in the Statesman today:

“Rhodes is confident that high standards can be maintained and that career training can kindle latent intellectual curiosity. He said his son didn’t have much use for mathematics until he took an automotive technology class; the son went on to earn degrees at the University of Texas and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is now an engineer for NASA.”

Either career technical education or traditional college-prep curriculum is a false dichotomy, and advocates that pit one against the other in a zero-sum game are doing a disservice to students and our future workforce. Yes, limited resources in most school districts require a serious conversation about how to allocate funding in order to get the greatest return on investment for students and their families, taxpayers, and the companies that will rely on these future workers. And, yes, education is about much more than just preparing people for the workforce.

But I’d challenge the advocates and the special interests behind the either/or proposition to talk to a few unemployed or underemployed college graduates and then consider how CTE in high school may have better prepared them for college and careers. Who knows how many more STEM graduates, like Dr. Rhodes’s son, we would have if students were exposed to career possibilities earlier and could therefore make more informed choices about college majors, internships, etc. AP Calculus works just fine for helping some students discover an interest or talent in math. For others, project-based learning or job shadowing works better. You need both. That’s the conversation we should be having.

In Texas, we are not always good about having serious conversations, especially when it comes to government spending. But we do seem to be at least a little serious about economic development and what it will take to remain a competitive location for private investment in the global economy. This is about more than how many tests kids should be subjected to and whether or not a so-called skills gap really exists and what should be done about it. And it’s definitely about much more than the tired line about “lowering standards” can offer to the debate. It’s about having the courage to acknowledge that the economy has changed and our understanding of how (and why) we educate and train people may need to adapt in order to keep up.

Changing the conversation from either/or to both would be progress.

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