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How about a 'GED' for college?

Posted: March 15, 2012 4:03 p.m.
Updated: March 16, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Could millions of college dropouts get a second chance through a GED-style equivalent of a college diploma? In today's age of blue-collar blues and online education, the idea of college-equivalency exams doesn't sound so outlandish anymore.

These are the new realities: The high school diploma is not the gateway to the middle class that it used to be. Amid new corporate efficiencies and the migration of high-paying low-skilled jobs overseas since the 1950s, growing numbers of college graduates are occupying jobs like postal worker or restaurant manager that used to be filled by high school grads.

The result is new pressures on blue-collar families and the class tensions voiced by presidential candidate Rick Santorum with his recent verbal jab ("What a snob!") at President Barack Obama's push for more college attendance. In fact, Obama, like Santorum, has been a major cheerleader for community colleges and trade schools. He did not say college was something everyone should do; rather, he said it is an "economic imperative" that "every family in America should be able to afford."

Yet, give Santorum his due. He touched on a reality that deserves more public discussion: College isn't for everyone. Some very bright students thrive better while learning a hands-on trade, for example, than they do in a classroom. Others simply can't afford the time or tuition of college because of personal circumstances.

As a result, the percentage of college graduates who come from households in the bottom fourth of income earners -- as I did -- has declined to only 7.2 percent from 12 percent in 1970, according to Ohio University economics Prof. Richard Vedder, who also is director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

Santorum's remarks while campaigning in Michigan moved me to call Prof. Vedder, whom I have known since he tried to put some economics knowledge into my noggin when I was one of his students many years ago.

Author of the 2004 book "Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much," Vedder sees a disconnect between the cost of college and the needs of the job market. He has found as many as one out of three college graduates today to be in jobs that historically were filled by people with lesser education. "These are jobs that do not require higher-level learning skills, critical thinking skills, or writing skills or anything of that nature," he said in a telephone interview.

At the same time, we see cheaper alternatives to college like online education growing to the point where we see Internet Age stories like online student Kayla Heard. The Union, Wash., 16-year-old graduated last year from Washington State University with a 3.7 average in social sciences without ever stepping on campus, except to pick up her diploma.

Let's go a step further, says Vedder. "As college costs rise," he said, "people are asking: Aren't there cheaper ways of certifying competence and skills to employers?"

People typically believe there are no good substitutes for college. But if a prospective employee can certify to potential employers that he or she is as bright, knowledgeable, good at communicating and eager to learn as a better-than-average college graduate, they can present themselves as a bargain -- willing to accept wages that are higher than normal high-school-graduate standards, but low compared to most college graduate salaries.

Vedder is encouraged by recent agreements between the Education Testing Service (ETS), which operates the famed SAT test for the College Board, and the Council on Aid to Education (CAE) to provide competency test materials to students online through StraighterLine, an online education firm. The challenge is to persuade college accreditation organizations and the business community that collegiate certification can be as reliable as the 70-year-old GED, which certifies high school equivalencies.

There are challenges, of course. College-level testing would have to be more than a multiple-choice list. It would have to be a fair judge of critical thinking, among other factors, and it would have to pass muster regarding suspected racial or gender bias. But these challenges are not unbeatable. At a time when economic success is increasingly defined by educational achievement beyond high school, future generations need as many alternatives as we can offer.

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