When College Is Not For Everyone

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There's a disconnect between education and business, says Bill Symonds. He believes the education system is not adequately preparing young people to enter the workforce and lead successful lives.

Symonds is the director of the Global Pathways Institute at Arizona State University. His research at Harvard University led to the seminal 2011 report "Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century."

Symonds told Here & Now's Robin Young that students need more pathways to the workforce and suggests education reform modeled on the European system, which offers strong vocational options and apprenticeships.

Interview Highlights: Bill Symonds

On the problems with higher education in the U.S.

“We have the highest dropout rate in the world. Another side of this is if you look at those who actually go through and walk across the stage, 50 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed. In other words, they have a job but they’re not doing what they’re really trained for."

“We do have a skills gap in the United States, which means businesses are having trouble finding the workers they really want and need to meet the needs of their industry. And a strictly academic preparation doesn’t prepare young people for many of those jobs. The interesting thing that in a number of those fields lots of jobs are going to be opening up because they are held by aging baby boomers, so there are going to be a lot of openings.”

On Switzerland's education system

“In Switzerland two out of every three high school students leave conventional high school at about tenth grade and go into an apprenticeship program. They train for jobs in more than 200 different industries and they spend about three years doing that. So it’s a combination of working in industry plus taking academic courses as well. They actually get paid to be an apprentice. When they’re finished with the program they are very well qualified to go to work. They’ve had a great education and it’s really the preferred route to success. Now, what’s the payoff — they have a higher graduation rate than we do here in the United States and they have one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the entire world. So it’s a phenomenally successful program.”

On how the U.S. education system should change

“We’re advocating a series of reforms that I think will help change the culture of education and lead to a more productive and effective system. The first one is let’s put a lot more emphasis on career guidance. Let’s start talking to kids at a very early age about two ideas: number one you can be successful, even if you’re living in poverty. You can achieve success in America, that’s still possible. Secondly, looking at the range of careers and figuring out which one really excites you, where do you have the abilities, aptitudes and interests to really succeed in that career and then figure what’s the best pathway.”


  • Bill Symonds, director of the Global Pathways Institute at Arizona State University.

This segment aired on December 16, 2014.


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