With a clear mismatch between college pursuits and actual compatibility, high schools must embrace opportunity pluralism
NEW YORK, NY – College isn’t for everyone—but it’s taking American high schools a few decades to figure this out. Data from New York City’s Department of Education (DOE) and the City University of New York (CUNY), marshaled in a new issue brief from Manhattan Institute director of education policy Ray Domanico, provide a particularly illuminating case study. Although the percentage of ninth graders who graduate from New York City’s DOE high schools within four years has increased from 50 to 79 percent over the past two decades—a trend that seems encouraging on the surface—the college readiness of these students, who comprised about 73 percent of entering students in CUNY’s bachelor’s programs in 2019 and 59 percent in its associate programs, remains uncertain. After four years, only 25.7 percent of students in CUNY’s associate programs will have graduated, a data point that serves as just one of many indicators of a mismatch between students’ academic pursuits on one hand, and their preparedness and fit for those pursuits on the other.
While some policymakers, academics, and journalists argue that increased spending on remedial programs, tuition, and extra-tuition costs would rectify the misalignment between college goals and actual compatibility, the evidence remains dubious. Instead, Domanico suggests that “opportunity pluralism” presents a viable option for empowering post-secondary students on the path to success. He draws from Bruno V. Manno of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute to explain that programs that foster opportunity pluralism, rather than blind adherence to the “bachelor’s degree or bust” mindset, offer academic curricula aligned with labor-market needs. These types of programs—which complement academic coursework with discussions of career options, emphases on concrete timelines, and coordinated on-site job experience—fly in the face of liberal arts programs, which, while a perfect fit for a particular subset of students, are ambiguous and broad by design. Unfortunately, as the data on outcomes suggest, many of the 42 percent of CUNY’s associate students currently enrolled in liberal arts programs do not comprise this particular subset. Instead, these students, many of them graduates from NYC DOE high schools, would save time, money, and stress by streamlining their paths to economic success and career satisfaction within an opportunity-pluralism framework.