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Finding clearer pathways to degrees that land jobs

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As we consider what kind of higher education will provide a path to prosperity, it would be wise to remember the oft-provided guidance to investors: past performance is not a guarantee of future returns. Proliferating colleges in the mold of the research university may have worked for previous generations, but that elaborate model is now failing — especially as higher education has a responsibility to reach students from every strata of a more diverse population. Its costs are hyper-inflated, its quality increasingly suspect and its relevance to the world of work increasingly tenuous.

The real innovations in higher learning will emerge from institutions relentlessly focused on lowering the cost of high-quality instruction that leads to measurable achievement in work and life.

Many of the important innovations in education will come from technologies that can dramatically reduce the cost of instruction. But merely wringing out costs is not sufficient. There are innovations in thought and practice that can significantly improve results without the need for a lot of technical wizardry. One that we focus on today is providing students with clearer pathways to degrees that are directly related to work.

In Sunday's Deseret News, readers will find two stories that look closely at programs that offer more promising direct educational pathways that align secondary education, higher education and workforce needs.

Deseret News reporters Celia Baker and Mercedes White look closely at a model program in New York City with a promisingly direct educational and career pathway. Pathways in Technology Early College High School is willing to take all-comers from impoverished neighborhoods in New York City into an intensive, year-round curriculum that connects increasing cognitive ability to skills directly valued by IBM, a sponsor of the program. The program provides a direct path from 9th grade to an associate's degree in six years or less. And graduates are given first shot at entry-level jobs within IBM.

Because the program is in its infancy, it is hard to demonstrate that its early achievements will translate into long-term success. Nonetheless, by charting a clear course that breaks through the increasingly artificial barrier between secondary and higher education and by constructing a sound academic curriculum that maps directly to entry-level job requirements in information technology, P-Tech provides an innovative model worthy of close study.

Similarly, reporter Ben Wood gives readers a look inside several models in Utah of what are called early college high schools. Developed largely using a public charter school framework, early college high schools speed a student's path to college completion by providing significant college credit during one's high school years through a combination of advanced placement, concurrent enrollment and college courses.

Obviously a great education should result in more than mere technical proficiency. But high-cost higher education does its students a tremendous disservice if it fails to connect them with meaningful employment. And the current curricular models that offer students a bewildering menu of general education offerings and sprawling requirements in hundreds of majors has demonstrably failed to provide that valuable connect for too many students. Higher education has failed when millions of recent college graduates remain unemployed or underemployed and businesses can't find qualified workers for unfilled jobs. It has failed even more when millions drop out of college because they can't see a clear pathway between their coursework and career.

Consequently, we fully support legislation (SB 169) proposed by Sen. Stuart Reid that assigns a blue ribbon task force the responsibility to identify systemic reforms that can help provide a more seamless alignment between public education, higher education and the needs of a global marketplace for talent.

It is not an act of Congress that will provide the next major advance in extending the benefits of higher education. Rather, it is a simple organizing principle: clear degree pathways connected directly to career.

It has almost become a contemporary maxim that prosperity is inextricably linked to higher education. It would, for example, be difficult to provide an account for America's extraordinary progress and prosperity in the late 19th and throughout the 20th century without reference to the Morrill Land Grant Act (providing the initial funding and governance of state land grant universities) and the G.I. Bill (providing federal higher education benefits to returning veterans). And it is implausible to think of maintaining competitiveness in our global economy without critical thinking, analytic reasoning and communication skills.