The forgotten half
Beyond College for All: Career Paths for the Forgotten Half, by James E. Rosenbaum. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2001, 300 pp.
Lisa M. Lynch
Beyond College for All reexamines the school-to-work transition for those who do not go on to further education after high school. In particular, it focuses on the connections and contacts made (or not) between students, employers, and high schools, documenting the considerable confusion and lack of information among these parties. The book also examines the nature of the contacts made between employers and high schools and what types of information are sought and shared among schools and potential employers. The focus is on the United States, but the book also discusses possible lessons learned from Japanese school-to-work transition programs. As a result, it provides readers with a one-stop reference written by one of the leading scholars on this topic.
Although the book is presented as the work of one author--James. E. Rosenbaum, professor of sociology, education, and social policy at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University--it is actually a compilation of previously published articles and working papers written by Rosenbaum and coauthors. Several of these papers have been updated and expanded by Rosenbaum from their earlier versions. Nevertheless, it is puzzling that recognition of these coauthors was relegated to chapter notes at the end of the book.
The book begins with a brief overview of the frameworks used by researchers in economics and sociology to examine the school-to-work transition. It also presents the basic theoretical model underlying the work in this book: the linkage model, which deals with the ways in which social contacts convey information. This introduction serves to set up one of the book's primary hypotheses: that a better understanding of how institutional networks can influence the matching process between students and potential employers can shed light on what conditions help promote a more successful transition from school to work for non-college-bound young people.
The book next examines high school students' beliefs about the relative importance of their performance to their future career plans. It documents how students who performed poorly in high school are also more likely to fail in college. The book in effect argues that the strategy of simply trying to provide an opportunity for all to attend college is misguided. Because school officials fail to challenge students on how realistic their chances of college success are, students end up underestimating the difficulties associated with college work.
An analysis of the attitudes of 27 high school guidance counselors from eight Midwest high schools finds that they are no longer either screening students for colleges or preparing them to go directly to work. In the past, the book argues, guidance counselors discouraged a disproportionate number of women and minorities from attending college. But today the pendulum has swung in the other direction: They are reluctant to tell any high school senior that he or she is not college material. Instead, community colleges bear the responsibility for delivering the bad news.
Using detailed information from interviews with 51 employers, the book examines employers' connections with high schools. Topics discussed include the importance of academic skills in employers' hiring decisions of high school graduates, the degree to which employers mistrust information provided by high schools on potential hires, and the ramifications of this on the criteria that end up being relied on for these decisions. The book also describes possible reasons why employers do not make more effort to improve their linkages with high schools.
The book then moves from insights gained from interviews of small samples of employers and schools to analyses of large longitudinal data sets. The nonacademic behaviors of high school students are related to their later life attainments. The impact of personal versus institutional contacts on labor market outcomes is examined in terms of the probability of obtaining employment and initial and later wages. Personal contacts are divided between those from relatives and those from friends. Institutional contacts are divided into those from school and those from employment services. The evidence presented suggests that obtaining a job through contacts made through relatives and schools has a larger effect on earnings nine years after school than contacts made through friends or employment agencies. The importance of school-to-employer contacts is especially important for women and minorities.
The book also makes clear the importance of vocational education teachers in helping high school students understand the types of work options available to them if they do not continue their education. In fact, the book argues that some vocational education teachers provide valuable linkages with employers. It discusses U.S. examples of successful school-to-employer connections that mimic some of the best aspects of the German and Japanese school-to-work systems.
In short, Beyond College for All argues that the current policy of both local educators and the federal government to emphasize college for all is misguided. By failing to inform students in high school who are not college-bound of the importance of both academic and "soft" skills, high schools end up sending on to college a large fraction of students who fail to thrive. Rosenbaum argues that these students could have been identified in high school and then redirected to a more successful non-college track. And he points out that the trend of the past 20 years has been to decrease funding for vocational programs and teachers at a time when they could have played a more important role in linking schools with employers.
Food for thought
Although the book challenges the reader to reassess current policy, I was left with several observations and unanswered questions. First, the author is quite enamored with the German and Japanese school-to-work systems. However, as these countries have struggled with their economies, it has become clear that educational systems alone are not a sufficient condition for growth. Thus, although improving school and employer linkages is an important goal, the ultimate success of an economy to absorb non-college-bound youth will be driven by additional factors as well.
The book is on the mark when it stresses the importance of communicating to students the rigors of college, and that their high school course work is a critical component in their eventual success in postsecondary education and the labor market. However, to conclude that the entire high school guidance community behaves as those described in the small and unrepresentative sample presented in this book is an inappropriate stretch. More generally, as the author points out in his discussion of the role of vocational education teachers, students gain information on the labor market opportunities available to them from a range of adults, including their teachers, parents, and community leaders. The problem lies not solely in what specific guidance counselors may or may not say in a brief session with a high school senior, but more generally in the standards and expectations set by a much wider range of educators and those who provide guidance to youth.
In addition, much of the book focuses on the differences between those with a college degree and those with a high school degree. There is relatively little discussion of the benefits of attending a community college or enrolling in a proprietary institution that provides additional skills training. I would not be so dismissive of the potential gains from attending community college or going on to some form of additional intensive skills training after high school. Although I am sympathetic to the idea that college may not be the best path for all students, this begs the question of what is the alternative. Do we really think that a high school degree is sufficient to prepare youth for tomorrow's or even today's labor market? How do we break the vicious circle in which those without education beyond high school are less likely to receive training investments from employers? Nevertheless, I share the author's concern that some policymakers appear to view community colleges as a magic elixir that will address all of the educational problems that have accumulated in the K-12 experience. I also agree that matching and mentoring students is still critical to the success of any these investments.
The book is also surprisingly silent on the range of school-to-work programs that were undertaken during the 1990s to try to improve the linkages between schools and employers. In addition, there is no discussion of the current trend toward high-stakes testing in high schools as a way to motivate students about the importance of academic skills and to provide more information to prospective employers on what students actually know when they graduate. I hope and expect that in future work Rosenbaum and his colleagues will examine the impact that this testing has on the transition from school to work, especially for non-college-bound youth.
Beyond College for All begins with an evaluation of the U.S. labor market made 15 years ago that states, "A crisis is emerging in the American labor market. Young people who do not get college degrees have been called the 'forgotten half.'" This book serves as a reminder that we are still struggling to address this forgotten half. As we identify and implement policies aimed at improving the school-to-work transition, Rosenbaum provides us with much food for thought.
Lisa M. Lynch (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the academic dean and William L. Clayton Professor of International Economic Affairs at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.