Washington Monthly - September/October 2015 - 65

aren't getting onto an educational dead-end road but, rather, onto a bridge that can lead, with a little more schooling, to a bachelor's degree. But for these alternatives to become widespread, higher education will have to rethink some unquestioned-and highly questionable-assumptions about what a BA is or should be. I f you ever need to strike up a conversation with a group of academics, a surefire way to get them talking is to ask about their graduate training. Where did they train, in what methods, in which lab, under what mentor? People will speak with great pride about their training as an economist, historian, chemist, philosopher, or classicist. If, on the other hand, you need to make a quick exit, try sharing the opinion that undergraduate education should include a lot more vocational training. You'll soon find yourself standing alone or responding to accusations of classism and questions about your commitment to social and racial equality. You might even hear that "training is for dogs," a common refrain in higher education that carries the unpleasant implication that skills-based education is the equivalent of teaching students to sit, stay, and shake hands. For reasons that are not entirely clear, in the United States training is widely understood to be the end, not the beginning, of an educational journey that leads to a particular job or career. Undergraduates are supposed to get a general education that will prepare them for training, which they will presumably get once they land a job or go to graduate school. Any training that happens before then just doesn't count. It is because of this belief that general education requirements are the center of the bachelor's degree and are concentrated in the first two years of a four-year program. The general education core is what distinguishes the BA from a vocational program and makes it more than "just training." It is designed to ensure that all degree holders graduate with a breadth of knowledge in addition to an in-depth understanding of a particular subject area. Students are exposed to a broad range of disciplines and are pushed to think critically about the social, cultural, and historical context in which they live. It is supposed to guarantee that all graduates can write, have a basic understanding of the scientific method, have heard of the Marshall Plan and Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and know that iambic pentameter has something to do with poetry. While few would challenge the importance of general education, both to students and to a well-functioning democracy, there is good reason to question why it has to come at the beginning of a BA-and just how general and theoretical it needs to be. The pyramid structure of the bachelor's degree, which requires that students start with the broad base of general requirements before they specialize, is what makes college unappealing to so many young people. It doesn't have to be this way. There is no iron law of learning dictating that students must master general theories or be fully versed in a particular historical or cultural context before learning how to do things. Some students will do well under this approach, but there is solid evidence that some students learn better through experience. For these students, theory does not make sense until it is connected to action. Putting a lot of general or theoretical courses on the front end just leaves them disengaged or, even worse, discouraged. They will do better if they start by learning how to master certain tasks or behaviors and then explore the more abstract concepts behind the actions. State and community colleges in the state of Washington figured this out years ago and offer a variety of options for students who want to begin their college career with technical training. Evergreen State College allows students to earn an upside-down bachelor's degree, with the technical education coming first, followed by two years of broader, general education. The program is designed for students like Jeffrey, with a more flexible approach to learning that honors the purpose of the general education requirements more than a rigid set of rules around exactly how many credits a student must have to graduate, and when. Under this approach, students can use the last two years of college to round out their education with courses designed to give them a broader understanding of the historical and social context in which they live and work, along with addressing any gaps in writing, analytical, or math skills. For many students who have been out in the world working and applying their skills already, the opportunity to pull back and see the big picture can be very appealing. Other community colleges in Washington offer a bachelor's of applied science, or BAS, a four-year degree designed explicitly to build on a two-year technical degree and provide a seamless pathway for students to continue their education. Some of the programs, like the BAS in manufacturing operations at Clover Park Technical College, add business and management skills to a two-year program teaching students how to operate and repair complex machinery. Others, like the BAS in radiologic technology at Bellevue College, allow students to continue deepening their technical skills in a particular field. The programs are still relatively new, but early outcome data is encouraging. According to a 2014 impact evaluation, 75 percent of graduates were employed two years out, with average earnings ranging from more than $80,000 for graduates of the radiology programs to $27,000 for those earning an applied management degree, with an average of $37,000 across all programs-comparable to the earnings of students graduating with traditional four-year degrees. Some students had transitioned successfully into graduate programs. The BAS degree is proving popular and growing: since 2010, when the degrees were first launched, enrollments have gone from just over a hundred students to nearly 1,000 in 2014. The colleges are planning for continued growth. Washington Monthly 65

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Washington Monthly - September/October 2015

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