Pathways to Possibility

Mark Milliron Catalytic Conversations Civitas Learning Space

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pathway I’ve taken a bit of a break on the blog for the last year or so. I’ve been diving into some fascinating learning experiences in philanthropy and beyond—and focusing more on other social media outlets. However, some reading this morning compelled me to engage this conversation form again. What struck me was the increasing cacophony around college completion and whether “going to college” is for everyone. Some question the investment in a college education given the cost in time, money, and effort. Others have an outdated view of what “college” is and confound the argument by scoping it to four-year degrees. A couple of articles in the last week tackle many of these issues head on and are worth the read:
    • In Even for Cashiers, College Pays Off, David Leonhardt quotes MIT labor economist David Autor as saying, “sending more young Americans to college is not a panacea…not sending them to college would be a disaster.”
    • Derek Thompson’s What’s the Best Investment: Stocks, Bonds, Homes … or College? reminds us of the importance of time in a college investment – “if you don’t feel like college is paying off … maybe just wait a little. School is an appreciating asset whose value accelerates in growth until you reach middle age.”
But there’s more to this discussions than making the case for college—because it’s not really about college. It’s about pathways to possibility. It’s about enabling strivers—people hell bent on improving their lives—to get on positive paths that lead to better futures. In short, helping those with the will, find the way to live well and free. For more and more Americans that future will involve education and training beyond high school. Economist Anothony Carnevale’s work makes the case that we need to help more young people realize this fact if our economy is going to hum in the years to come. Education reformer Geoffrey Canada pushes this issue further, arguing there is no future for business if we don’t get more of our low-income students in particular to and through college. Moreover, he argues that lowering the education expectations for the poor runs counter to what rich people do for their own children. Still, we can’t slip into more is better for everyone. The challenge is to prepare people for the paths that are “on purpose” for them. Check out Shop Class as Soul Craft for an articulate argument about the value of different paths to better futures and lives with deeper meaning that might not fit the norm. What I hope we keep in mind as we continue the conversation about the increasing need for education is that while we do care about keeping our economy strong, our efforts should be rooted in a deep conviction that we want students willing to do the work to succeed on paths that are right for them. We should work to shine a bright light on the value of deeper learning and careers with both economic opportunity and personal meaning; but equally important, we should aggressively clear the brush of bureaucracy and eliminate nonsensical busy work that wipe too many strivers out. If you want to get motivated to take on this work, check out the Degrees of Difficulty site and watch videos submitted from today’s “traditional” students to get a sense of the effort they are putting in to these journeys. Education experiences should add value and map to desired future opportunity. We cannot afford to dead-end folks on single-track credential or career pathways of no return. Indeed, we should do the hard work of stacking and syncing credential pathways to enable educational experiences less encumbered for the long run—enabling real lifelong learning. Most of all, we should not be taken hostage by the tyranny of “the one best way.” Our students may need to take more time, achieve smaller credential wins to pay for life along the way to bigger career goals. Particularly for low-income students, their support systems are rarely strong and their lives are far from simple. A certification along the way to an AA, or an AA on the way to a BA, can mean the difference between a living-wage job or welfare when “life happens”—e.g., kids get sick, plant closes, car breaks down—and the college journey has to stop for a time My wife Julia and I have large and diverse extended families. We have relatives who work in the military, home construction, heavy equipment, retail, small business, education, software development, insurance, banking, and more. And we have relatives that have earned industry certifications, AAs, BAs, BSs, PhDs, EdDs—and soon an MBA & JD—from public, private, for-profit, and not-for-profit providers. They’ve worked hard to achieve the credentials they needed—some are still working—and are in careers that make sense for them. They are on their pathway to possibility. I’m sure many of you see the same diversity in your own families. It’s not about college for all. It’s about an America where diverse pathways to possibility are clear and compelling; and where those willing to do the work of the journey can succeed.