11/26/2012 03:07 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

More Detours Needed on Path to College

Flickr: leonshishman

Every spring, millions of 18-year-olds graduate from high school and start on one of three paths: college, the military or work.

College is the choice encouraged most often by high-school guidance counselors, and for good reason. By 2020, two out of every three jobs will require some sort of higher education, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce, at Georgetown University.

But not every high-school graduate is ready for college at 18. By promoting college as the preferred pathway right after high school, we leave those students who are not ready, or who have no idea why they enrolled, at risk of dropping out with no more idea of what to do next than when they arrived on campus -- and very likely saddled with debt as well.

The higher-education establishment in the United States has been obsessed with raising graduation rates ever since the Obama administration and two major foundations, Gates and Lumina, vowed to see that the country soon has the world's highest share of adults with college credentials.

Getting students who start college to eventually finish is a noble goal. But we focus too much time, effort, and money on pushing students through a narrow, simplistic view of higher education -- one that starts three months after high-school graduation and ends two or four years later with a degree.

That vision doesn't reflect either the reality of today's students or the higher-level skills our economy needs in its workers to compete on the global stage.

Over the past year, as I reported for my forthcoming book on the future of higher education, I met dozens of students who were struggling with their studies or their finances, and sometimes both. People like Samantha Dietz, who dropped out after her first semester at Fairleigh Dickinson University because she was worried about her tuition bills and saw more practical value in her job than in her coursework.

I met others who were in college only because their parents wanted them there, like Cullen Edmunds, who dropped out of Plymouth State University in the spring of his first year and is weighing his options while working at a gas station.

I began to investigate alternative paths to a credential. I talked with students who took a year off after high school before going to college. I met adults, like Evan Burfield, who had delayed going to college for several years. Mr. Burfield went to a top public school but chose to defer a rowing scholarship at Tulane University. "I graduated high school with 400 of the smartest kids, and 399 of them went to college," he told me. "But some of them didn't know why."

The idea of graduating from a four-year college is so ingrained in our culture that many of us have trouble envisioning anything else. Certainly, additional education after high school is crucial. I still consider a two-year or four-year college campus as among the best places to get that education. The problem is that a significant number of students today are poorly matched with the colleges they attend. And we lack high-quality educational substitutes. It seems we send some kids off to college because there is nowhere else to put them. The campus is a convenient, if expensive, warehouse.

In the United States, college is considered the default maturing experience for adolescents who have no interest in joining the military. Colleges weren't designed with that primary task in mind, however. Their cost has risen so fast in part because they feel pressure from parents and the government to keep adding services to help students mature.

One of the best ways to improve completion rates and fill jobs is to make sure that students who go to college after high school are truly ready for it, or else channel them into alternatives that motivate them to go eventually, or give them needed skills for the workplace.

One key reform would be to blend the transition between high school and college. Instead of a three-month gap, more students would ease into credit-bearing college courses in their senior year of high school.

Further along, a large part of the first year of college would be mandatory work or service, through which students could learn practical skills, work alongside people of other ages and backgrounds, see the daily results of their labors, and earn some money to pay for college.

Even without major changes in the organization of the education system, colleges could encourage more incoming students to take gap years -- not necessarily so they could backpack through Europe, but rather so they could link up with groups, like AmeriCorps, that provide structured experiences for young adults.

The United States should also bring back the apprenticeship model, which still works well in other countries. Many European countries, with such programs in place, report fewer problems than the United States does in getting students from school to the workplace. Before the worldwide economic downturn, more than 80 percent of young Germans found jobs within six months of completing their educations, compared with only about half of young Americans.

Perhaps the most important change may prove the most difficult: a shift of attitude on the part of parents, guidance counselors, and higher-education officials themselves, about college being the place to go right after high school. This is not about encouraging students to skip college. This is about creating more pathways to college.

Seven years after Evan Burfield graduated from high school, and after he created several start-up businesses, he finally went to college. He earned a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from the University of Oxford. Today he is chairman of Startup DC, a regional branch of a national effort that provides resources to those who start businesses.

Rather than view additional pathways to their institutions as new competitors, colleges should see them as ways to improve their own completion rates, expand educational opportunities to more students and provide the American economy with the skilled work force of tomorrow.