degree, diploma, roi

Two of the housing community's biggest challenges right now trace directly to one of our society's mistaken beliefs.

The challenges are a shortage of people who can get out of the lowest couple of economic quintiles via economic mobility to buy a home, and a shortage of people to join construction trade crews to lower the cost of homes for that lower economic group.

The mistaken belief, one might argue, is that economic mobility comes with a bachelors degree. It may be true that a four-year college degree promotes upward mobility from the bottom and prevents downward mobility from the middle and the top.

But the numbers in the real world tell a different story. Here's data that shows that fewer than one in six kids from the bottom third of the income spectrum will make it through a four-year college program to a degree. Among economically disadvantaged children, one out of five doesn't make it out of high school with a degree.

So, the reality is, people born into the lowest rungs of society from an income standpoint, stay that way. Meanwhile, housing's chronic shortage of capable and skilled workers in many construction trades stands to get worse. As people age out of their profession, they're not being replaced by new, young, trained tradespeople.

Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and editor of "Education for Upward Mobility, suggests that the challenge is not about trying to funnel more disadvantaged kids into a track towards a four-year college degree. That's been tried; and it's not working.

Petrilli notes that too often, the bachelor's-degree-or-bust strategy fails, and when it does, an individual for whom that strategy fails winds up only having wasted time in a system with nothing to show for it. He suggests another approach that makes sense:

A better approach for many young people would be to develop coherent pathways, beginning in high school, into authentic technical education options at the post-secondary level. But, right now, 81 percent of high school students are taking an academic route; only 19 percent are “concentrating” in career and technical education (i.e., earning at least three credits in a single CTE program area).

As Tamar Jacoby demonstrates, high-quality career and technical education (CTE) programs, culminating in industry-recognized post-secondary credentials, have great promise in engaging students, helping them succeed academically, boosting college completion rates, and brightening career prospects. By age 20, graduates of such programs have academic credentials, technical credentials, and work experience—and, usually, well-paying jobs.

Just as the economy has spawned new respect for those who opt into the "renter-by-choice" spectrum of housing's customers, a new regard for those who choice technical school over a conventional four-year liberal arts post-secondary education should emerge.

Then, economic mobility could become a reality as opposed to a dream for many more Americans; and labor capacity in some of the construction trades would simultaneously expand as students who choose technical school would have an opportunity to learn, and experience on-the-job-site exposure to one of home building's key skills.