10/02/2012 11:06 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

Let's Expand Our Definition of Education After High School

Much is made of President Obama's goal that by 2020, the United States will lead the world in the proportion of college graduates. Less often discussed is that the president and others have also challenged Americans to commit to at least one year of education or training past high school.

We continue to cling to a single, iconic image of life after high school as a four-year college campus. In doing so, we exclude large portions of the American population from sharing in the nation's economic successes. In 1970, seven of every 10 workers with a high-school diploma or less were in the middle class; today fewer than four in 10 remain there. By 2020, two out of every three jobs will require some sort of education after high school.⁠

What must happen is fairly simple: expanding the notion of what constitutes an education after high school. That definition should include on-the-job training and apprenticeships, coupled with a broad college education, as well as experiences before college that improve the often difficult transition from highly structured high school to freewheeling campus life (more on that in a future post).

More attention needs to be given to what Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, calls "middle jobs." These are positions that do not require a bachelor's degree but pay middle-class wages. Nearly half of all the jobs in the United States today that put people in the middle class are these middle jobs.

How to fill those positions -- not high-end jobs in engineering, design, and technology -- is what worries corporate executives the most. "We can secure all the grads we need from elite schools," says J. Thomas Bowler Jr., a senior vice president at United Technologies. "That's not a challenge. It's the other half of the work force that I worry about."

Some companies are taking it upon themselves to educate their workers, bypassing the higher-education system. In rural Macon, Mo., a company called Onshore Outsourcing trains employees to provide technology services -- software development, application support -- to Fortune 500 companies that normally would send the jobs to India or China.

About 80 percent of the Missouri company's 150 employees are people who didn't go to college, because they either weren't encouraged to or couldn't afford it, says Chuck Ruggiero, the president. "We're looking for that underemployed worker," he says. The average salary at Onshore is $30,000, a solid wage in a place where good jobs are few and far between.

The hiring process, however, is demanding. From an initial applicant pool that could number upward of 200, the group is narrowed to about 30 through a battery of interviews and a test. About 15 people get into an eight-to-12-week boot camp of classes based on problem-solving activities, not lectures. "The idea is to put them on an island and throw them a problem to solve," Ruggiero says. "After all, that's the way the real world works."

Bill Arends wanted to work in that real world, writing computer programs. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in Moberly Area Community College, a half-hour south of Macon. Two semesters later, the 28-year-old dropped out. His transcript was filled with A's, but he was bored in his classes. "I've been doing this in my basement since I was 11," he says. "They weren't inspiring me." One of his instructors worked at Onshore and suggested he apply. Now Arends works on cybersecurity for a power company that is one of Onshore's clients.

Ruggiero, Onshore's president, says the company's training is not meant to replace college. He wants his employees to eventually go to college, in part because "some clients want college-educated workers."

That requires companies like Onshore to work closely with colleges. Doing so hasn't been easy. Given that many of Onshore's workers are placebound, Ruggiero is negotiating with one college to grant credits for his boot camp so his employees can at least use some of their experience toward degrees. But we all know that colleges and universities like to protect their role in granting credits. They say it's about quality, and at times they are right. But too often it's about protecting their bottom lines.

If America is to have any hope of improving its standing in the world in terms of an educated work force, and to help the economy at the same time, colleges and universities must see themselves as part of a larger education system, one that includes on-the-job training, apprenticeships, and eventually degrees -- and not as the only system of education after high school in the United States.