Institutions from charter schools to the White House are pushing hard for more young people to go to college, but with almost half of students at four-year colleges destined to leave without a degree, a counter-trend is starting to take hold: a loose coalition of people in the credentialing, training, and grant-making businesses are working to build an alternative to college for young people who are not academically inclined. The new paradigm centers around the National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC) developed during the 1990s by ACT, the non-profit organization far better known for its SAT-style college-entrance exam. The NCRC and its assorted components and supplements, collectively known as WorkKeys, offer a path to employment success outside the conventional college track.
Scores on the WorkKeys assessments certify to prospective employers that job applicants have mastered enough specific, nationally recognized mental and interpersonal skills to qualify for the jobs they are seeking, no matter where they went to high school, what courses they took, or whether they had any college experience at all. In short, ACT’s NCRC strives to make bypassing college a viable, indeed an optimal choice for those who are either unlikely to succeed academically, or who are just turned off by the prospect of years of higher education. Alternatively, the test can help them get decent jobs while they pursue further specific training that could hoist them into even better ones.
Right now, this is a revolutionary concept. Generally speaking, enrollment in college is now the only socially acceptable choice for a brand-new U.S. high school graduate. And so, thanks to nearly six decades of federal and state policies designed to make college a universal experience—policies that include loans, grants, and the massive expansion of public campuses—about 68 percent of high school graduates duly enroll in a two-year or four-year institution of higher learning, 90 percent of them as full-time students, according to Labor Department statistics for 2010. Yet only 20 percent of high school graduates ever manage to complete bachelor's degrees—and that doesn't count the 30 percent of young people who fail even to collect a high school diploma.
Even students who enroll in four-year institutions, whose admission standards are generally higher than those at two-year community colleges where open admissions is the rule, only 53 percent graduate within six years. The rest leave school often heavily in debt and with a roster of completed courses often chosen haphazardly (because core curricula hardly exist these days) that don't add up to preparing them for the job world. Despite these dismal statistics, which suggest at the very least that college isn't for everyone, most U.S. high schools continue to spurn vocational training and insist on funneling all their students through academic tracks. The high schools fail spectacularly at this mission: Some 60 percent of all entering college students must take and pass classes in remedial math, remedial English, or both—that is, repeat high school and in some cases grade school–before they can move on to college-level coursework that will earn them college credits.
And a college degree nowadays doesn't necessarily signal that its holder has any useful work skills. In September the CEO of Caterpillar Inc., Doug Oberhelman, told a business audience in Calgary, Alberta: "We cannot find qualified hourly production people, and for that matter many technical, engineering service technicians, and even welders, and it is hurting our manufacturing base in the United States. The education system in the United States basically has failed them and we have to retrain every person we hire."
A Structured Program with Few Electives
In September the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College issued a report about traditional-age students from low-income families (less than $32,000 per year) enrolled at community colleges in the state of Washington. Nearly all those disadvantaged young people had to take remedial classes, and few managed either to earn a degree or credential or to transfer to a four-year institution. Whether bogged down in remediation or floundering aimlessly because no one had outlined a clear path of courses for them that would anchor them in a specific course of study leading to a credential, many of those students would sign up for a few classes, fail most of them, and drop out.
One study cited by Columbia researchers Madeline Joy Weiss and Davis Jenkins found that 45 percent of traditional-age community college students failed to earn even a single year's worth of 30 credits. "Students need guidance—anything that you can think of that will help them plan their futures," said Davis Jenkins, a senior researcher at the Columbia center. "What seems to work for students, and particularly for disadvantaged students, is much more structured programs with few electives. There needs to be a clear connection between what they're learning and what the outcome will be for them."
That connection is what the promoters of the ACT National Career Readiness Certificate aim to provide. ACT, founded in 1959 as the American College Testing Program, launched its first WorkKeys in 1990 in an effort to provide the non-college-bound population with the same sorts of reliable assessments that the conventional ACT test gives to college applicants. "The WorkKeys are really designed to help them to see what workplace skills they possess and what they need to do in order to do better," explained Katie Wacker, a spokesman for the Iowa City-based ACT. Depending on their scores, test-takers can qualify for a Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum certificate. A Bronze certificate indicates that is bearer is qualified to hold 35 percent of the 16,000 jobs profiled in ACT'S database, whereas a Platinum certificate indicates that its bearer is qualified to hold 99 percent of them. Those dissatisfied with their results can retake the test as often as they like in order to upgrade their certificates (an ACT subsidiary, KeyTrain, offers online SAT-style prep courses on the relevant skills.)
The idea is that employers can decide which certificate level they would like to see in the hands of applicants in order to match them to the job at hand. (They can also check with ACT to verify that a certificate is genuine.) The NCRC test avoids such high-school stumbling-blocks as algebra, geometry, grammar, and advanced vocabulary—the stuff of the SAT and the regular ACT test. Instead the NCRC test, designed to focus on real-world in contrast to academic aptitude, contains just three WorkKeys: "Applied Mathematics," "Reading for Information," and "Locating Information." Still, while the skills assessed in the three WorkKeys are fairly basic, (Applied Mathematics requires no more than eighth-grade math), to perform well enough to earn a Platinum-level certificate would probably challenge many college graduates.
I tried out the most difficult of the sample NCRC questions on ACT's website and found myself delving deep into memory for the formula for calculating the volume of a cylinder (Applied Mathematics), attempting to correlate two complex soil-sample graphs (Locating Information), and poring over a legal document (Reading for Information). Critical thinking and the ability to use abstract data to solve concrete problems are clearly among the skills assessed. ACT has also developed a list of additional WorkKey assessments that employers in search of specific talents such as business writing or applying technology, or "soft" interpersonal skills such as listening, conflict resolution, or working in a team, can use to fit applicants to the specific demands of a job.
Again, the quest is not for high levels of book-learning. My inner schoolmarm balked, for example, at the WorkKeys sample business writing assessment, which allows test-takers to score at the highest level even if the memos they produce as they take the test contain spelling, diction, and punctuation errors that would embarrass any real-life business, if those memos were sent out on company letterhead. Sample questions and answers in the WorkKeys teamwork assessment portrayed an idealized workplace that bore little relation to the complaining, ego jostling and buttering up of superiors that most employees encounter on the job in real life.
The Quest Isn’t for Book-Learning
The NCRC has been enthusiastically embraced by state governments. Some 35 states have programs in place, whether at high schools, community colleges, or employment-training offices, that either incorporate the certificate or use the certificate as a model for their own state certificates. Alaska, for example, requires all high-school juniors and all job applicants who seek help from the state's Department of Labor and Workforce Development to take the test. In October 2020, Jennifer M. Granholm, then governor of Michigan, proclaimed a Michigan Career Readiness Certificate Week, an event that included a conference in Lansing, the state capital. The state version of the certificate includes the three basic WorkKeys plus some of the soft-skill components.
Nonetheless, a daunting task remains for the promoters of the NCRC: persuading employers, job applicants, and educational institutions to recognize it. In 2007 Subaru Automotive Inc. of Indiana, the sole U.S. manufacturer of Subaru vehicles, used WorkKeys assessments to comb through more than 22,000 applications in record time –18 months—to fill 1,100 job openings created for a new production line in Lafayette, Ind. Subaru's was not an isolated experience, but it was not a commonplace one, either. Indeed, Granholm's proclamation in Michigan was in part an effort to persuade human resources personnel in the state that the test could help them in hiring decisions. "The problem is that the ACT test is not recognized by either employers or higher education," said Jenkins of Columbia's Community College Research Center." In some areas, employers are using the test, but in the bigger cities, they haven't recognized the test. They recognize industry certificates, and they recognize degrees, which they use mainly to screen job candidates for motivation and some sort of basic literacy."
There may be some changes. The Manufacturing Institute, a non-profit affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers, has incorporated the NCRC as a baseline "competency" for young people seeking careers as welders, machinists, quality-control specialists, mechanical designers, and so forth. The institute, working with national industry organizations such as the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council (MSSC), the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS), and the American Welding Society (AWS) that administer their own occupation-specific tests for certifying competency in industrial trades, has charted a series of specific career, certification, and education "pathways" that high-school graduates can use to work (and study) their way as far up a career ladder as their aptitudes and ambitions take them. They can move at their own pace, alternating periods of work and classroom time if they like—or work for decent pay and accumulate college credits simultaneously. The standard full-time, two-year, or four-year college pathway that produces so many dropouts would give way to an array of more flexible and individually tailored options.
For example, an 18-year-old armed with only a high school diploma (or even a GED) plus an NCRC certificate could attend a community college or technical institute part time to obtain a short-term technical certificate in welding, take and pass the AWS's basic welding test, and go to work as an entry-level welder at around $16 an hour. The next step up the ladder might be a one-year technical certificate, also from a community college or technical institute, plus a safety certificate from the MSSC, which would qualify the young welder for a larger array of skilled manufacturing jobs. After that might come a two-year associate degree in applied science and more advanced certificates from the American Welding Society and then after that might come a two-year associate degree in applied science that, coupled with more advanced certificates from the AWS and the MSSC, would mean access to an even greater array of skilled, better paying jobs. The final step might be an engineering degree from a university–a bachelor's, master's, or even a doctoral degree.
From Welding to Applied Science
The underlying idea is that the college credentials would be "stackable"—that is, the credits obtained while earning a short-term technical certificate would also apply to earning a long-term technical certificate, whose credits would in turn go toward earning an associate degree, whose credits in turn would count for transferring to a four-year program. Young people could accumulate credits and credentials at their own pace, speeding to a bachelor's degree in four years, taking their time over ten years with stop-outs for work—or quitting post-secondary schooling altogether after one or two years. Yet even those who earned only a short-term certificate could reasonably expect to find decent-paying skilled jobs.
Their nationally recognized industry certification, coupled with their NCRC's and perhaps some supplemental WorkKeys test results, all portable, would assure prospective employers even in distant states that they were fully qualified. And since the Manufacturing Institute's suggested pathways provide the degree of educational structure that Weiss and Jenkins found to be crucial to the academic success of disadvantaged students, they won't feel as though they've wasted their time sitting in classrooms. "Manufacturers are constantly telling us, even in this recession, that they can't find people with the right skills for the job," said Jennifer McNelly, a senior vice president of the Manufacturing Institute. "We're trying to change the education system to a system based on competencies, not the recognized simple pathway through college that is standard right now."
In order to persuade community colleges and technical institutes to adopt the stackable-credential concept and to integrate industry certification into their vocational programs, the institute, with funding from the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, has set up pilot programs at institutions in several states. One of them is Shoreline Community College just north of Seattle, which used a Manufacturing Institute grant to integrate both the NCRC and certification from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills into its three-quarter-long manufacturing program, which currently enrolls fifty students in two sections. "One problem we've had in the past is that when a student finishes at Shoreline and moves out of state, employers might not know what our certificate means," said Susan Hoyne, dean of mathematics and science at Shoreline. "Now, they have a third-party certificate that says they're NIMS-certified. It's a confirmation that they have the skills, not just some teacher saying they have them." Furthermore, Hoyne said, "the state of Washington will accept their credits. They can go on to a two-year degree, and we have one man from the program who is now going on to a four-year degree." Some 95 percent of students in Shoreline's manufacturing program finish, Hoyne said. "They know they can get a job," she added. And so far 100 percent of the graduates of Shoreline's manufacturing program have done so.
Still, while it is clear that employers highly value certifications related to specific occupations and issued by such longtime and well-respected industry groups such as NIMS or the AWS, it is unclear how much they value a general assessment of employment. The experience of Tennessee may be instructive. The State Board of Regents operates 27 Tennessee Technology Centers specifically devoted to vocational training and offering certificate courses that train about 10,000 full-time students and an additional 22,000 part-time students in more than 70 programs. Most of the centers are adjacent to state "career centers" that are a combination unemployment office and job clearing house.
A Visit from Bill Gates
The Technology Centers have an exemplary reputation for offering focused education (all students enroll in programs, not random courses), so much so that Bill Gates himself, whose charitable foundation focuses on expanding opportunities for post-secondary education, recently paid a visit to one of the branches and spent nearly three hours talking to students and teachers. The student-retention rate for the technology centers' programs, which range in length from seven weeks to 18 months, is 75 percent—unusual in the high-dropout world of community colleges. The centers have made the Tennessee version of the NCRC the centerpiece of its educational offerings. All entering students take a career-readiness "pre-assessment," and they then must go through a "Career Readiness 101" course that teaches them the basics (it's essentially remedial education) and in which they test and retest themselves to the point that they can qualify for a Silver certificate that will open up to them 65 percent of the jobs in ACT's databank. Before graduation they take the test with proctors supplied by the Technology Centers.
Or at least they have the opportunity to do so. Thanks to a federal grant from the funds made available by President Obama's $800 billion stimulus legislation in 2009, the Tennessee Technology Centers were able to offer the test, which costs $20, free for two years to all their students. Now, those funds are at gone, "and we couldn't make the test mandatory," said James King, vice chancellor for the technology centers. About half the centers dug into their own pockets to continue making the ACT test gratis. The rest didn't, and the number of students willing to come up with a $20 bill to pay for the test themselves has fallen fell sharply, suggesting that many of them—as well as their prospective employers–placed little value on the certificates. Still, said King, "the same training that prepared them for the test–they're still getting."
A Familiar Obstacle: Disparate Impact Law
The NCRC may face an even more serious threat than employer indifference: on September 1 the Obama administration filed a racial-discrimination complaint against Leprino Foods Co., which makes mozzarella cheese, over its use of WorkKeys assessments to screen job applicants at its plant near Fresno, Calif. According to the complaint, only 49 percent of black, Hispanic, and Asian applicants passed the tests, in contrast to 72 percent of white applicants (a Leprino spokesman declined to comment on the allegations). The federal action was perhaps inevitable. Decades ago many employers routinely tested applicants in basic math and English—but the tests began to disappear during the 1970s when courts made it clear that if the scores showed a "disparate impact" on blacks, Hispanics, and members of other minority groups, employers could be liable. ACT maintains that if employers use WorkKeys properly, in conjunction with a careful evaluation of the specific skills that a job-applicant needs to possess, and that no discrimination complaints based on WorkKeys have ever been successful to date. Nonetheless, the Obama administration's Labor Department, citing a federal law that bans workforce racial discrimination by federal contractors (Leprino supplies cheese to the U.S. military), has targeted Leprino, and by implication, any employer who uses an ACT assessment to decide whom to hire. It may be legally dangerous for other companies to follow the lead of Subaru.
Of course, neither such legal entanglements nor the National Career Readiness Certificate itself would have come into existence if the K-12 education system in America were capable of teaching young people reading and eighth-grade arithmetic. In times past a high-school diploma would have impressed an employer sufficiently to give an 18-year-old a chance to learn welding on the job. Now the high-school degree means little and the 18-year-old needs more.