Opinion: Education and training after high school are keys to recovery

The end goal after high school shouldn’t be a college diploma for every student, but training and skills that enable every student to earn a livable wage, says Stephen Pruitt of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. (AJC file photo)

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The end goal after high school shouldn’t be a college diploma for every student, but training and skills that enable every student to earn a livable wage, says Stephen Pruitt of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. (AJC file photo)

A decline in students seeking education and training beyond high school worries Stephen L. Pruitt, president of the Southern Regional Education Board.

“We hold to the belief that postsecondary education — anything past 12th grade — is the engine to the recovery. Right now, we don’t see enough fuel in that engine,” said Pruitt.

An interstate education compact of 16 Southern states, the nonprofit SREB helps direct educational policy and drive economic development. SREB recently released its latest Fact Book on Higher Education, which found overall education levels of the South’s population rose on the strength of four-year degrees. But there was an ominous decline in the number of two-year college students.

Two-year college enrollment fell by about 7% in SREB states between 2014 and 2019. In Georgia, the drop was 11.6%.

Recent U.S. numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show the pandemic worsened the decline in two-year college enrollment, which fell 9.5% in the spring of 2021 and 7.8% this past spring.

Why is that a problem? Because Georgia’s economic growth depends on both workers with college degrees and those with training in trades, said Pruitt, who has served as Kentucky state commissioner of education and director of academic standards at the Georgia Department of Education.

“We just need good solid educations that will lead to successful after-school life,” he said. “What we want to do is change how we talk about it with students — it should not be, ‘Where are you going to college?’ It should be, ‘What’s next for you?’ Students need to know they are just as valued if they go to a community college and get an associate’s degree as they are going to a four-year college for a chemistry degree. We need all of that.”

The end goal after high school shouldn’t be a college diploma for every student, but training and skills that enable every student to earn a livable wage, said Pruitt. Training shouldn’t be customized to a specific set of skills for a specific job because jobs can be lost to automation and artificial intelligence. For example, Pruitt said self-driving trucks will eventually lessen the demand for long-haul drivers, which is why training programs now should include transportation logistics and management.

“We prepare kids for a job, they get the job, eventually the job goes away and they are stuck. We need them to be able to transcend a job, and that means teaching them rigorous content,” he said.

The SREB Fact Book on Higher Education shows that Georgia, compared to other states in the region, has lower college completion rates among white, Black and Hispanic students for both two- and four-year degrees.

Pruitt urged higher education institutions to better equip students to navigate campus life, which can be daunting for first-generation college students. Campuses have to invest more in student success, providing coaches and counselors and using digital reminders and tools to inform students and identify those in need of intervention. Advisement has to be more than a box-checking exercise, said Pruitt, especially at large campuses where it’s easy for students to melt into the crowd and sink quietly into despair.

SREB advises higher education to look to historically Black colleges and universities for guidance on developing strong, caring communities.

“Traditionally, HBCUs have been known for their nurturing environments and their ability to support students who may not necessarily have all of the resources to succeed in college,” said SREB Vice President of Postsecondary Education Stevie Lawrence. “One of the things HBCUs do well is help students understand the cultural environment of the institution. It instills a sense of pride among the students. That pride may come or begin from involvement in student orientation sessions and that, in turn, creates a sense of belonging.”