Career focused education proposed as solution for Louisiana’s failure rates

NEW ORLEANS, La. – A new Harvard School of Education study, “Pathways to Prosperity,” recommends that educators place a stronger focus on vocational education and apprenticeships, rather than aim to send every high school student to college.

“We are the only developed nation that depends so exclusively on its higher education system as the sole institutional vehicle to help young people transition from secondary school to careers,” says Robert Schwartz, academic dean of the college and co-author of the study.

The study sought to address the failure of young adults to either finish four-year degrees or find fitting vocational opportunities.
Currently, 70 percent of American students fail to earn a four-year degree and face limited employment prospects. However, Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, cited in the Harvard study, projects that by 2018 nearly half of all job openings that require post-secondary education will go to people with an associates degree or occupational certificate.

The implication is that students failing out of four-year programs would find better prospects in these targeted professional programs. The study also calls for elementary and high school educators to develop a curriculum with these alternative programs in mind.

Louisiana typifies the observed educational mismatch. According to the Southern Regional Education Board, 70 percent of Louisiana’s high school graduates enter college within one year, but only 38% graduate within six years. That compares to a national average of 55 percent. Louisiana students who fail out of college have almost four times the unemployment of those who graduate.

While concerned about low graduation rates, Penny Dastugue, president of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, notes record numbers of students in Louisiana’s community colleges – in her view a positive trend worthy of encouragement.

“We need to do a better job exposing our students to different career pathways so that they understand what options are available to them after graduation.” However, she is resistant to students being “tracked on a certain pathway as early as middle school that limits their options upon graduation.”

Frederick Hess of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, claims that it is not a lack of opportunities available for students, but rather a problem of education institutions lowering their standards.

“A given credential does not have an absolute meaning. For instance, a high school diploma 50 years ago doesn’t represent the same amount of learning as a diploma does today.”

He continues, “Someone can assert that an employee will need a two year degree for certain employment opportunities in 2015 or 2035, but what really matters is what skills and knowledge are represented by that degree – and that can vary across institutions and over time.”

Click here for a transcript of the interview with Penny Dastugue.

Robert Ross is a researcher and social media strategist with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be contacted at, and you can follow him on twitter.