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Directing kids into vo-tech: Because it's better for them or because we've given up on them?

Political leaders in Georgia declared an urgent need a decade ago to motivate more high school students to attend college. Gov. Sonny Perdue created a contest with cash prizes, the Governor's Cup, to reward schools with the biggest gains on the SAT.

Now, the pendulum has swung, and the rhetoric is less insistent. No longer is the goal to get teens college-ready; high schools are now being extolled to prepare graduates for college or career.

There's nothing wrong with education policies that equip kids for the job market rather than the college classroom. Unless those policies are put in place for the wrong reason --- because Georgia believes some students can't meet the higher standards required for college.

A few weeks ago, the state released scores from the first administration of new exams based on the tougher math standards; 60 percent of Georgia students performed at levels defined as beginning or developing learners.

Georgia can respond to these dispiriting results in two ways: Figure out how to enhance math education starting in pre-k by improving teacher training, instruction and curriculum; or decree that we have students who aren't suited for a four-year college and thus really don't need advanced math.

Here's the problem with the latter: In five years, more than 60 percent of the jobs in Georgia will require some form of a college education. Today, 34 percent of Georgians hold an associate degree or higher.

A generation ago, schools sorted students into college prep, general studies or vo-tech based on perceived ability and prospects, often influenced by class bias. Counselors determined which students were destined for Georgia Tech and which were bound for vocational programs or community college.

Such sorting has long-term consequences on a student's life and earnings. Despite the fretting about the rising cost of a college education, a degree remains a good investment. In fact, the earning gap between those with four-year degrees and those without has never been wider; U.S. workers with degrees earned 82 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than those with only a high school diploma, mostly due to the decline in wages among less-educated workers.

A college degree provides a strong return on investment even for marginal students. A recent working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research studied what happened to lower-achieving students in Georgia --- those with an average maximum SAT score of 960 --- who attended a four-year public college rather than a two-year program.

The study concluded, "Our results suggest that 'over-matching,' or enrolling in a college where one is substantially less academically skilled than one's peers, is actually beneficial for students, at least in terms of degree completion."

A large-scale study out of Florida posed the natural follow-up question: Are those students only marginally prepared for college able to attain economic returns large enough to justify the investment of time and money?

The answer was yes. Eight to 14 years after high school, the students who went to college earned salaries 22 percent higher than peers who hadn't gone, with men registering the largest gains, according to the study by economist Seth D. Zimmerman.

Understanding the value of college, Nicole Hurd, former director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence at the University of Virginia, founded College Advising Corps to help first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students get there.

The program recruits recent college graduates, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, to serve in high-poverty high schools advising teens on applications, financial aid and scholarships.

In Atlanta last week for a summit with 500 of the young advisers, Hurd questioned the trend in Georgia and other states to identify career pathways for students early in high school, paths that might not lead to college.

"As a country, we still don't believe college is for everyone, " she said. "However, it is not a decision to be made for students when they're in eighth grade and someone decides to track them into vocational education. The students should make that decision themselves when they are 18 and we have prepared them for whatever it is they want to do."

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.