One snowy February afternoon in 2007, I flew into St. Louis and ended up on the Enterprise Rent-A-Car lot looking for my car. There, I was met by an engaging young woman identified by her name tag as Lyndsay. St. Louis being my hometown, I asked Lyndsay about her background and learned she had recently graduated from a nearby university with a marketing degree.
Lyndsay competently completed all the basics that day, noting the mileage and checking the car for damage. But her job required no advanced skills. The entire transaction took only a minute or two, required no calculus, no deconstruction of Hemingway. Nothing Lyndsay did that morning required a college degree.
But I got something important out of that encounter, an early understanding into why President Obama said this in a speech last month: "And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school, vocational school or an apprenticeship."
Obama didn't come right out and say it, but the message is clear: College has become the new high school. Soon after my St. Louis trip I called Enterprise and learned that with a few exceptions for military it hires only college graduates for Lyndsay's position. The ability to multitask and communicate with customers, skills that years ago high schools supplied, are now found almost solely among those with two- or four-year degrees.
To hammer that reality home to high school students, states such as Kentucky and Michigan have moved to raise minimum dropout ages. If you don't make it through high school you've got no chance of acquiring the post-high school credentialing demanded by jobs of the future.
But, as a recent report by the Lumina Foundation summed up, "College attainment rates are rising in almost every industrialized or post-industrialized country in the world, except for the U.S." Lumina's point was the same as Obama's: Eventually, our flat education levels will hurt our international economic competitiveness.
That's true, but it doesn't quite capture the whole picture. Lyndsay renting me a car isn't helping our international competitiveness. Whether your bank teller has a high school degree or a Ph.D. says little about international competitiveness, but it says a lot about economic survival, which is what high school students should care about.
The college-as-high school phenomenon is picking up speed during the recession, with employers having their pick of better-educated workers. A recent Denver Post article captured that nicely: "If I had a light labor job, I'd have a Ph.D. do it," explained a Denver employment agency staffer who had just hired two people with B.A.s to pick up sticks from sidewalks.
So what's the best solution? In many states, 40 percent of high school students entering college need remediation in math, reading, or both, which cuts the odds of their earning that four-year degree.
Those with the smartest answers are the ones closest to the ground. Foundations appear to be on the right track in funding "early college" for high school students, where they take college classes as sort of dress rehearsal for higher education. Brookings dubs this preparing students for "middle skill" jobs. A new program at City University of New York, Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), requires full-time study and gives many of the students tuition waivers and all students books and Metrocards for transportation. That hurry-up approach through college into a career is proving successful, reports insidehighered.com.
Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts appears to have a prescient grasp of the challenge. Two years ago, Patrick proposed free community college to students, part of a broader plan to wrap students in an education cocoon starting with pre-K and ending with an associate's degree.
While Patrick's plan ran into a recession slowdown, it's clear he "gets" what other politicians have been slow to grasp; that the need to push education beyond high school goes far beyond the somewhat esoteric "international competitiveness" issue that think tankers extol.
All the best solutions focus on dangling bankable job skills before high school graduates not likely to see themselves as college material. The toughest nut to crack will be young men, who lag badly behind in earning community college and four-year degrees. Too many guys remain oblivious to the college-is-the-new-high school message: You may know about cars, but unless you've got a college degree, the Lyndsays of the world are going to get first dibs on those Enterprise jobs.
Richard Whitmire, president of the National Education Writers Association, blogs at whyboysfail.com