Should we do postsecondary ed the European way?

For all the talk of graduation rates and four-year degrees, we haven't really heard much about vocational education, two-year certificates and all of the options that don't include a university degree.

But a little dinner this week with Bill Symonds of Harvard and some higher-ed leaders got me thinking more about it, and I hope to use a conference in May to bring it to the front of discussion.

What interested me: the idea European system of apprenticeships and technical education, which includes a lot more hands-on learning and work -- and whether any of that could work over here.

A recent report by Symonds's project, Pathways to Prosperity, focuses on how the U.S. needs to build multiple "pathways" into the workforce -- and not just rely on the one-size-fits-all system of four-year university education that so many have espoused.

It holds up Northern and Central Europe as possible models:

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As the recent OECD reports suggest, other countries manage to equip a much larger fraction of their young people with occupationally relevant skills and credentials by their early twenties. Consequently, these young people experience a much smoother transition into adulthood, without the bumps and bruises so many of our young are now experiencing.

The lessons from Europe strongly suggest that well-developed, high quality vocational education programs provide excellent pathways for many young people to enter the adult work force. But these programs also advance a broader pedagogical hypothesis: that from late adolescence onward, most young people learn best in structured programs that combine work and learning, and where

learning is contextual and applied.

Symonds will be hosting a Twin Cities conference in May (details to come), but already this week's dinner -- with the state higher education commissioner, officials from private and public colleges and K-12 schools, and some outside of education -- raised some interesting questions:

  • How can we eliminate the stigma of vocational and technical education?

  • How can we restructure education to prepare students for jobs in those fields? And are the jobs really out there?

  • Would the European model work here?

  • Will business help out in this? Is it really willing to invest?

Just a heads-up about what could be a really interesting topic in the near future.