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A California high school student practices welding during a class on advanced agricultural mechanics. California is spending $6 million on a campaign to revive and improve vocational education. Credit: Wire photo: © The Bakersfield Californian/

American society is obsessed with a single route to success.

We tell our children they must get high SAT scores, attend selective colleges, get bachelor’s degrees and get high paying jobs to have a successful life. They go through 12 years of incessant testing, test-prep lessons and test mania, as if tests were the key to success

The nation’s education system has become an SAT rat race in which youth are judged on where they fall on the bell curve of test scores.

This message drives kids crazy. Even high-achieving students worry about their rankings and strive to improve them in hopes of college admissions. Since low test scores can hurt a school’s reputation and funding, high schools sometimes find ways to exclude low achieving students on test days, presaging future societal exclusion.

Related: After decades of pushing bachelor’s degrees, U.S. needs more tradespeople

In our recent book, Bridging the Gaps, Caitlin Ahearn, Janet Rosenbaum and I find that although academic skills and high test scores are worthwhile goals, the narrow focus on one-dimensional attainments is a mistaken view that ignores many good options and creates unnecessary discouragement for students who feel they cannot meet college test-score requirements.

“Students with low test scores often succeed with credentials other than a bachelor’s degree, and some of them have higher earnings than graduates holding a bachelor’s.”

In reality, highest scores aren’t necessary for college access. We were amazed to discover that 90 percent of high school graduates now attend college within eight years of graduation. We have come close to attaining “college for all.”

Despite the obsession with getting into very selective colleges, only 13 percent of colleges are very selective. Most graduating seniors attend the “other 87 percent” of colleges — trade schools, public and private two-year and four-year colleges, large and small colleges, for-profit colleges, and colleges with massive open online courses (MOOCs) and blended learning.

We find that that these other colleges offer practical occupational programs, in which many students discover abilities, interests and motivation they didn’t know they had.

Moreover, the focus on bachelor’s degrees is too narrow. More students get associate degrees and occupational certificates than get a bachelor’s. Although average earnings are higher for graduates holding a bachelor’s than for associate degree and occupational certificate holders, these earnings overlap a great deal.

Related: Century-old ‘work college’ model regains popularity as student debt continues to increase

About 25 percent of individuals with one-year occupational certificates earn more than most bachelor’s holders, and one-quarter of bachelor’s holders earn less than most individuals with occupational certificates. Students with low test scores often succeed with credentials other than a bachelor’s degree, and some of them have higher earnings than graduates holding a bachelor’s.

College faculty report that occupational programs, and the jobs they lead to, often require solid eighth grade to 10th grade academic skills, but not necessarily college-level academic skills. Students must learn professional standards and skills, but often not high academic skills. This path holds many nonmonetary rewards such as autonomy and career relevance that are important sources of fulfillment and are more strongly correlated with job satisfaction than earnings.

Some young adults choose lower-paying jobs in order to get better autonomy, training, or career relevance. We find that high-paying jobs are sometimes dangerous, disagreeable, or dead-end.

In contrast with the SAT rat race, associate degree and occupational certificate holders can get good jobs that are vital to society — airplane mechanics, auto repair mechanics, computer technicians, HVAC services, manufacturing workers, medical aides, and elevator-repair workers.

Related: Candidate’s comment reopens controversy over whether college is worth the cost

About half of all jobs in the U.S. are mid-skill jobs like these. Despite the hemorrhaging of jobs to offshoring and automation, many of these occupations cannot be displaced. They must be done in the U.S., but they require specific college programs. Indeed, while we glorify bachelor’s degrees, most holders of bachelor’s degrees aren’t qualified to do these jobs.

Our daily activities, and indeed our lives, depend upon the skills of these workers. Going in for surgery, our anxieties focus on the surgeon, but we quickly realize that our life depends on the technical skills of an entire team, including twenty-year-old surgical tech assistants with one-year college certificates from unselective colleges.

These jobs are vital to society and to all of us.

High school seniors want jobs that are satisfying, help others, contribute to society, and provide sufficient earnings to support a family. Youth don’t need high SAT scores to attain these goals.

Society sometimes seems blinded by an achievement mania, which distracts attention from what really matters for most people.

In fact, society offers many more good options, which can appeal to more students, and we should make sure that all youth are aware of their many options.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our higher-education newsletter

James E. Rosenbaum is professor of sociology, education, and social policy, and research fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University and also co-author, with Caitlin E. Ahearn and Janet E. Rosenbaum, of Bridging the Gaps, College Pathways to Career Success.

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  1. A favorite handout for kids in middle and high school: After High School, Then What? I created this to give kids options.

    Think the only options are college or work? Actually you have lots of alternatives after you graduate.
    What might influence your decision?
    1. You have worked so hard on required academics and extracurricular activities in high school that you need some time to recharge.
    2. You took the required classes but never found any subject areas or activities that excited your interest for further learning.
    3. You haven’t a clue what you want to do next.
    4. You and/or your family feel that there isn’t the money for you to go directly to college.
    5. Your GPA isn’t anything great, and your grades are mediocre.
    6. You never got around to applying for anything—or maybe you missed the deadlines.
    7. You want training that will get you a good job.
    8. You really enjoy people and travel.
    9. You need to earn money for college.
    10. You might admit to being a bit immature.
    11. You want to serve your country right away.

    What are your options?
    1. Job Corps
    2. Apprenticeship
    3. Certification
    4. AmeriCorps
    a. Search by specific skill area or by area of the country
    b. Earn a stipend and more than $5,000.00 toward education or government loan pay-off
    5. Gap Year can involve experiential learning, travel, and independence—do one or combine options
    a. Volunteer
    Religious organization
    Public or private schools
    b. Internship (paid or not) in an area in which you have a strong interest
    Political activity
    The family business
    Fitness center
    c. Travel
    Another country
    d. Learn a new skill
    Language immersion
    Musical instrument
    Cake decorating
    e. Explore a dream
    Write a blog—or more
    Create a portfolio of your art, music, or other area
    6. Get a job to build your resume, accumulate money for next steps
    7. College—two year degree or 4 yr. degree
    8. Military

    People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something that one finds. It is something one creates.”
    Thomas Szasz,
    Hungarian psychiatrist and academic

    Thank you for your great articles. I share them with lots of folks!

  2. “We were amazed to discover that 90 percent of high school graduates now attend college within eight years of graduation. We have come close to attaining “college for all.”

    Sure, 90% may attend college for even one semester, but what percentage are graduating with degrees that serve them well? What percentage are going into debt, dropping out, feeling like they wasted time and never getting a degree? Your inference of college for all is highly misleading. Please use representative stats before you go around shooting down college as if it’s practically ubiquitous.

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