Betsy DeVos Calls for a ‘Major Shift’ in Focus

DeVos wants to see students exposed to a wide variety of training and career options starting as early as middle school.

By Alex Chediak Published on November 24, 2017

Getting high schoolers ready for college, attending college, and graduating college has long been the mission of almost every administrator at the K-12 level. That’s why Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ recent remarks made news. She called for a major shift in how we think about what’s needed in education. DeVos would like to see a renewed emphases on apprenticeships, certifications and other non-bachelor degree pathways to careers.

DeVos wants to see students exposed to a wide variety of training and career options starting as early as middle school. Speaking to a Wall Street Journal CEO Council conference in Washington, DeVos noted that, “students who graduate from high school, go immediately to college, and graduate in 4 years, are the minority.” 

“Traditional” Students Are the Minority

 If we define “traditional college student” as someone who graduates high school, immediately attends a four-year college, and completes a degree in 4 years, we’re talking about maybe one in five people. Only 44 percent of high school graduates find themselves at a four-year college a few months later. And only about 40 percent of these individuals will graduate in four years. Another 20 percent of them will graduate in their 5th or 6th year. But that just brings us up to one in four young adults (60 percent of 44 percent). I think Ms. Devos’ point is, what about everyone else?

With fewer high school students working side jobs, it’s getting tougher for teens to be deeply exposed to anything but the classroom. So they turn 18, finish high school, and are clueless about the world of work. They don’t know themselves well, and the only option they know is college. No wonder so many start and never finish. Some of these people, if they had the chance, might discover that they prefer working with their hands. Others, if exposed, would learn of industries they can access with specialized forms of training over a 1-2 year period.

Some might eventually earn a bachelor’s degree — when they’re older, more mature, more experienced, and know what they want to do with it. The point is, we need to give 12-18 year olds more options to consider. We need to awaken their interests, curiosity and creativity from an early age, meaningfully involving them in their educational development. We also need to empower parents to make choices as to how their children get educated. We need to ditch the one size fits all approach at the K-12 level.

What Jobs Are We Talking About? 

Education and workforce expert Anthony P. Carnevale just released a new report called “Good Jobs that Pay without a BA.” The gist is that there are some 30 million good-paying jobs available for adults with less formal education. The Carnevale report defines a “good job” as one that pays at least $35,000 to someone younger than 45 years old, and at least $45,000 to someone older than 45 years old. In 2015, the country’s good jobs had median earnings of $55,000 per year.

Carnevale and his colleagues found that good jobs for workers without BAs are increasingly concentrated in skilled services industries instead of traditional blue-collar sectors. For example, manufacturing jobs have declined but health services and financial services have seen strong gains.

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These good jobs do, however, require more than a high school education. Since 1991 we’ve seen a 7 percent decrease in good jobs held by those with just a high school degree. But we’ve seen an 8 percent increase in good jobs held by those with an associate’s degree. The top industries for non-BA good jobs are manufacturing, financial services, real estate, professional, and management services, transportation, communications, utilities, wholesale and retail trade, and construction.

What’s the Role of Industry?

It’s significant that DeVos made her remarks to business leaders. With so many students pursuing degrees, companies can sit back, require a degree, and hope their next batch of employees show up ready on Day One. The colleges can weed out those who lack the discipline to complete their coursework.

But this doesn’t always work. DeVos reported that we currently have some 6.1 million jobs that are unfilled because employers can’t find people with the right skill sets. What then? The best answer, it seems, is for the companies themselves to roll up their sleeves and invest in the development of potential employees. This could mean cooperative education programs with local colleges. Or launching apprenticeship programs to attract high school graduates with an immediate $12-15/hour job and the chance to learn the skills to eventually earn $40,000-$50,000/year. For the businesses there’s most cost on the front end, but more gain on the backend.

Most colleges are already interested in these partnerships. Many are willing to tinker with existing associate’s degrees or create new degrees to better meet the needs of local employers. Industrial partners, particularly in the health care, finance, and technology sectors, would be a huge boost.


Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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