How Oregon Works: Why a college degree isn't for everyone (Portland Business Journal, December 2018)

Posted on December 6, 2018 in Media Coverage

Read the story below and here.

Like many in academia, former Concordia University professor Michelle Jones observed disturbing disconnects in the American educational system. Unlike many in academia, she founded her own college to help address it.

Portland-based Wayfinding Academy, which can grant degrees through Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, nonprofit liberal arts program billed as the nation’s first alternative two-year college, rejoices in the proposition that not everyone is Harvard material. The academy is an antidote to what Jones sees as a binary K-12 U.S. education system: proceed directly to a four-year college or be branded with a scarlet “F.”

“We tell young people they should go to college and it’s not serving us very well. Most people who start college drop out. We’ve created a big problem,” said Jones.

The institutional pressure is such that young people whose life situation, skills and interests are better suited to alternative career pathways are pushed into a traditional college experience that often ends in an unquenched thirst for knowledge, muddled career vision, crippling debt and a haunting sense of defeat.

“It’s often the most vulnerable populations who drop out – first-generation students, persons of color. It leaves a lot of people feeling shame and feeling inferior, and they carry that around with them for the rest of their life, affecting all of their relationships,” said Jones.

Money Problems

Student debt load has been getting plenty of attention in the news of late. Federal lawmakers, including Oregon senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and Rep. Suzanne Bonimici, have proposed measures to provide relief and help prevent default to student borrowers. It’s not clear, however, that the situation is getting any better.

For one, tuition continues to rise. Average in-district annual tuition and fees at Oregon community colleges has risen 16.4 percent to $5,399 in the past five years, according to Business Journal research. At four-year Oregon public universities, tuition and fees for full-time undergraduate students rose 15.1% for resident students to $8,764 and 22.9% for non-resident students to $24,927.

Student debt has followed suit.

“Seventy percent of students who graduate from a four-year institution have debt,” Jones said. “National estimates range from $28,000 to $40,000 of debt for graduates of a public institution. I did informal surveys of my classes at Concordia, a private institution, and their debt was an average of twice that.”

Five percent of four-year graduates have debt exceeding $100,000.

It doesn’t help that a majority of college graduates are in school beyond four years, with some attending multiple institutions before earning a degree. Just 45 percent of students obtain a degree or certificate at the first institution they attend within six years of starting college, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Thirty-one percent drop out entirely and the remainder straggle on, often changing schools.

The least likely to graduate are often students from families with fewer resources. Children from families earning more than $90,000 have a one-in-two chance of graduating from a four-year college. Children from families earning $35,000 or less have a one-in-17 chance, reports the Washington Post.

The Wayfinding Academy

Wayfinding Academy’s mission is to provide alternative pathways that keep students engaged and illuminate viable career opportunities. The core curriculum includes a mix of personal enrichment — understanding ourselves and others — and practical skills — engaging with information and communicating effectively.

Wayfinding opened its doors in St. John’s in 2016. It is located in a yellow clapboard building that was once a YMCA. The rooms are open and airy, and the furniture is cozy. The vibe is one that suits the Wayfinding creed, which is anchored in the phrase: “We believe there’s more than one way to do life.”

Tuition is roughly $21,000 for the full two-year program, with scholarships available.

Founder Jones’ specialty is organizational behavior — psychology applied to the workplace setting. She came to see the U.S. educational arrangement as exactly backwards — students select a college, then choose a major, then figure out what they’re going to do, then try it out.

“You should first decide what you want to do and then decide the best way to make that happen,” said Jones, who noted that the average worker churns through a job every two years, and will switch careers four to seven times over a lifetime.

For decades, Portland-based All Hands Raised has been advocating for racial equity in schools and providing pathways for students to living wage jobs. Part of achieving those goals has been to change the mindset about “post-secondary education.”

“Community colleges provide a lot of options, and working in an apprenticeship or in the trades in a family wage job can be a really good choice right out of high school,” said All Hands Raised CEO Dan Ryan. “It gives young people a chance to earn while they learn – that’s post-secondary education, right? Maybe 10 years down the road they’ll get an engineering degree and have a lot of valuable perspective. I think we try to apply a linear standard to post-secondary education, when in truth most young people tend to meander.”

The “mental model,” he said, needs to shift — even among educators.

“There’s a stigma for people who don’t go straight from high school to college. High school counselors give students three options: four-year college, the military, or ‘good luck.’‘”

Some local high schools are creating a new model that provides alternative pathways to success, he adds. Roosevelt is working with the carpenter’s union, Franklin has allied with Portland Community College and Centennial students meet monthly with tech firms, for example. “It’s all about economic mobility,” Ryan said.

Marrying education with employment in manufacturing, health care, construction and other living-wage industries greatly increases the outlook for success for at-risk youth, added Andrew McGough, executive director of Worksystems, a workforce development organization that partners with local governments, employers, labor groups and others.

Eighty-six percent of high school drop outs who co-enroll in Worksystems’ NextGen job training and placement system are retained in employment or are participating in post-secondary education programs after one year.

Oregon high schools need more curriculum designed to help youth transition directly to the workforce, said McGough. “There are a lot of things we need to figure out and get better at.”

Many of the programs available to young people don’t cost the student a thing, one benefit of the current economic high tide and the need for workers at most every level of employment.

“If you go to a four-year college, you have college debt, that’s the reality,” said James Reyes, education director at Northwest College of Construction (NCC), which charges no fees. “If you come here, you have no debt, that’s the reality.”

Eighty-five percent of NCC graduates earn a prevailing-wage ($30 per hour) and have an open-shop job waiting for them upon graduation from the one-night per week, seventh-month program. The starting average annual salary is $60,000.

No high school degree is required to attend NCC. It’s even open to Ivy League material, Reyes said.

“I met a guy working as a carpenter’s apprentice who has a bachelor’s degree from Harvard.”