Transcript

Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary. More people in the United States are going to college than ever before.

Stan Jones: We have more minorities than we ever have, more low-income, more first generation students than we ever have.

But a lot drop out - often with big debts. Thirty-seven million Americans have some college, but no degree.

Miles Jones: In today's society I mean you can't get nowhere without a degree anymore. You can have the knowledge and the hands-on, and the experience to do it, you're still gonna get just the bare minimum.

Sallie Glickman: The pathways for just working hard and moving up, that just has completely evaporated.

This hour we explore why people quit college and why it's a national dilemma. Stay tuned for Some College, No Degree from American RadioWorks.

First, this news.

Part One

Stephen Smith: Hammond, Louisiana is a college town about an hour's drive north of New Orleans. It's home to Southeastern Louisiana University - and a diner called University Donuts.

Diner Sounds: Thank you, have a great day, bye-bye ... Thank you Sam!

The walls here are painted the school colors - green and gold - and there are Southeastern posters everywhere you look. Courtney Worthy is the waitress. She's taking an order for catfish and gumbo from a customer at the counter.

Courtney Worthy: You want something to drink?
Male customer: Tea.
Worthy: Sweetened or unsweetened?
Male customer: Uh, sweetened.
Worthy: Alright ...

Courtney Worthy was once a student at Southeastern Louisiana University. She went there straight out of high school in 1998.

Worthy: And my family was like, Courtney, you just need to go and you need to get a degree but my freshman year, I just really didn't care, to be honest with you. I was just like whatever, I'm in school, my grandparents and my parents are not harassing me about it. I'm here.

Worthy (to customer): Everything was OK?
Female customers: It was excellent, it was good.

For Worthy, the problem with college was that while everyone else was sure she should go, she didn't really know why she was there.

Worthy: I wasn't really finding what I was passionate about in school. Like, there are several things that I'm interested in, but nothing that I was like, OK, yeah that's it, that's what I want to do. And I felt like you know if I was going to spend this much time and effort in something, then it needed to be for what I really wanted to go for.

Worthy ended up dropping out. Now she's 30. She's been in and out of college for years. Though she's still not sure exactly what she wants to do, she says she knows she has to finish her degree.

Worthy: The market for jobs is just tough. And when I go in there with no degree compared to somebody that does have a degree, they're not even giving me an opportunity most of the time.

[Music: "I'm Amazed" - My Morning Jacket - Evil Urges - Ato Records / Red]

From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, Some College, No Degree. I'm Stephen Smith. More people are going to college than ever before. But in the United States, half the students who start don't finish. There are 37 million people in this country who started college but never got a degree - that's more than 20 percent of the working-age population.

Sallie Glickman: You can't look at these numbers and say anything but this is a huge policy nightmare for this country.

Sallie Glickman is founder of a program that helps college dropouts get back to school. She says, in an economy where knowledge and credentials are increasingly important, people who don't finish degrees are being left behind. Getting them to graduate would make a huge difference - for them and for the nation. So many students are dropping out that the United States - which was once first in the world in the proportion of people with college degrees - is now fourth.

Announcer: The president of the United States ... [Applause].

President Barack Obama promised to put America back on top in a speech to a joint session of Congress just weeks after taking office.

Pres. Barack Obama: By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. That is a goal we can meet [Applause]. That's a goal we can meet.

It's a tall order - and experts say getting the current generation of students to graduate won't be enough. People who have already dropped out of college will have to finish their degrees, too. Over the next hour, we're going to explore what it will take to make that happen. We'll look at who quits college, why it's hard for them to come back, and how changing college itself may help more people graduate. We'll also examine why college degrees matter - and what makes them valuable. Here is American RadioWorks producer Emily Hanford with the story.

Emily Hanford: There was a time when most people didn't need college degrees. In 1970, only 26 percent of the middle class had any kind of post-secondary education. Even most wealthy people didn't have college degrees. But everything has changed. Today's economy demands workers with more skills and knowledge. Tony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, says nearly 60 percent of all jobs in the United States now require higher education.

Tony Carnevale: This has been a sudden and huge shift in job requirements over the lifetime of many workers - which is to say a lot of people who started out OK with their high school degree or even less are not OK anymore.

One of these people is John McGee. When he graduated from high school in 1988, he had no interest in going to college.

John McGee: College wasn't on my radar. I was looking for independence so I joined the military.

McGee served seven years in the U.S. Army. When he got out, he took a job at the Horseshoe Hotel and Casino in Bossier City, Louisiana, a gambling town across the river from Shreveport.

Male security guard: Good afternoon. Welcome to the Horseshoe.
Female security guard: Good luck to you, sir.

McGee started here, as a security officer at the casino entrance. Just beyond the entrance is the million-dollar wall - 10,000 one hundred dollar bills behind thick plates of Plexiglas. Gamblers sometimes kiss the wall before they place their bets.

Casino Sounds: [Cymbals crash] You've won 90 credits. Watch and see what multiplier you get.

John McGee has been working at this casino for fifteen years. He made his way up from security officer to shift supervisor to valet manager. A college degree was not something he thought he needed, until a few years ago.

McGee: I saw somebody get a promotion that I knew I could do but wasn't qualified for. And I kicked myself in the butt because had I had the qualifications I would have applied.

This is what motivates a lot of people to get degrees - they can't move up without them. But by this time McGee had a wife and two kids and he was working an overnight shift. He had no idea how he could possibly find the time or money to go to college. Then, he got switched to a day shift, found out about a tuition assistance program at work and decided this was it - he was going to get his degree. He signed up for night classes at Louisiana Tech. He took speech and psychology.

McGee: Five-fifteen to 9:45 at night. It was a drag because most of the instructors were coming in after a long day's work and so I could sense that they've worked all day, I've worked all day, and so I didn't feel like I was really getting ... it was a struggle.

McGee was going through the motions - and he was irritated that he had to take so many introductory classes when he already had years of experience in business and the military. He thought that experience should count for something, but instead he was starting at the beginning, looking at years of night classes. He knew he wasn't going to make it.

[Music: "Hip Hop Instrumentals 158" - Hip Hop Instrumentals 168 Tracks - GiallaniRecords.com]

Going to college is hard if you're a working adult, so perhaps it's no surprise that many of them drop out. But here's the thing: almost all of today's college students work. They can't afford tuition if they don't. Only a small fraction of them live on campus and studies full-time. Georgetown University's Tony Carnevale says the popular image of college is no longer accurate.

Carnevale: We still think of college as students sitting on a lawn with a professor talking about Plato. It hasn't been that for a very long time.

Carnevale says most people go to college to get good jobs, not broaden their minds. When they quit, it's often because they don't see the connection between what they're learning and the career they want. Or they don't know what career they want, and college seems like an expensive way to figure it out. Money was the main issue for Marilyn Johnson Jackson when she graduated from high school in 1989.

Marilyn Johnson Jackson: I have two sisters that are older than I am and they were away at college and so my mom said, hey, three of you all away at college. I can't afford that.

So she stayed at home - she's from a big family in Shreveport - and took classes at a local college.

Jackson: And I didn't like it.

She didn't think the college was very good. Plus, she was tired of school and she didn't want to be living at home anymore. She was ready to be on her own. Jackson told her mother she was going to take a year off, get a job and an apartment.

Jackson: Started working, liked the money ...

She worked in the medical supply department of a state hospital making $4.44 an hour - it was more than minimum wage and she thought it was good money, until she got pregnant. She had no car and no health insurance. Her son's father didn't help with the bills. Jackson was no longer thinking about going back to college. What she needed was a second job.

Jackson: I worked at the racetrack, the horse races. I was a ticket agent [laughs]. I cleaned offices. I worked at Wal-mart.

Meanwhile, she was still working at the hospital during the day. She wanted to move up, but like John McGee at the casino, she could only get so far without a degree. At this point her son was in middle school. His grades weren't very good and as a way to motivate him she said:

Jackson: You know, I'm going to start saving for your college education and he said, well mama, why didn't you ever finish college? I said you know I quit one day and I just said I was going back and I never did. I said, but I, I said, I'm going to tell you something, I said, before you graduate high school, I'm going to walk across a college stage.

As soon as she said that to him, Jackson couldn't get it out of her mind. She had to find a way to finish her degree. So she took out student loans and starting taking classes in the evenings after work. It was a nightmare.

Jackson: Between leaving work and getting out to the college, there was no dinner fixed, there was nothing done. You know, it's just my world was crazy. I was running, running, running.

Jackson was just about to give up on the idea of ever getting a degree when - driving one day - she noticed a new billboard.

Jackson: I can still remember it's a black lady with a Bossier Parish Community College colors on and a gold tassel and she was holding up a diploma, and it said CALL program.

CALL Advertisement: [Music][Female voice] Have you been waiting for your future to start? Have you been watching opportunities pass you by?

This is a public service announcement for the Center for Adult Learning in Louisiana, known as the CALL program. It's designed to bring people back to college who have some credits but no degree. There are more than half a million people in Louisiana who fit this description.

Luke Dowden: They're just waiting for someone to turn the lights on. They're waiting for someone to say - hey, we haven't forgotten about you. Come on back.

Luke Dowden is the director of the CALL program. He says most traditional colleges aren't set up to meet the needs of working adults. Sixteen-week semesters with lots of required courses might work fine for students studying full-time for four years, but the population Dowden is trying to reach needs college to be quick - and convenient.

Dowden: Their time, their energy and their finances are limited.

CALL is not a college; it's a program that helps existing community colleges and state universities in Louisiana become what Dowden calls "adult-friendly." CALL has its own application process and counseling staff. All of the classes are online, they take eight weeks or less to complete, and students can get credit for what they already know through a process called prior learning assessment. This is what attracted casino worker John McGee when he heard about CALL.

McGee: Freshman English, Principles of Management, Principles of Marketing, Human Resource Management, Personal Finance.

Those are the classes McGee tested out of by taking a series of nationally-recognized exams administered by the College Board. The rest of his classes he takes online.

McGee: I treat online school like school. So, at a certain point in the day, say OK I'm off work, and I take my tie off and my jacket off, pull my personal laptop out ....

McGee is in his office at the Horseshoe Casino. Next to his desk is a black backpack full of textbooks. He's working on an assignment for a computer applications class.

McGee: This is the book for that class. And so where she says work through pages 47, [Flips through pages] I just literally sit, and start working ...

McGee says he was immediately sold on the idea of taking classes online. Marilyn Johnson Jackson, who is also in the CALL program, was more skeptical.

Jackson: How can you take a class online? I just didn't get the concept.

But once she started ...

Jackson: Mm, I like this. I can get out of the bed and walk right in here to my computer, do my homework, and I'm through for the day.

Jackson enrolled in the CALL program through a community college and got an associate's degree a year later four days before her son graduated from high school. John McGee finished his associate's degree even faster. The degree has helped him earn two promotions and raises totaling $28,000. Now McGee is working on his bachelor's degree.

McGee: Once I got in there, I just got addicted. And then learning became interesting, because I felt like, man, I'm finally accomplishing something, I'm finally accomplishing something. It became less about chasing to get to the end as it was of going through the process, the learning process.

McGee is working on his bachelor's in business. But what you study doesn't really matter, says McGee's boss, Rod Centers. The important thing is: you get the degree.

Rod Centers: It's the ability to commit yourself and to show that learning is possible and growing and being dedicated to an end result. And I think that education offers that. Cause it's not easy. It's inconvenient. You know in John's example, family, kids, full-time job. And I think it says a lot about a person that is willing to take that step and persevere through that to make that happen.

This is a point worth considering for a moment. Centers is saying that because getting through college is so hard, making it across the finish line indicates you have a certain grit and determination others may not have. Does that mean a degree from a program like CALL - that makes college quicker and more convenient - is less valuable than a degree from a traditional school? Centers says no. The bottom line is what you learn while you're in college. And he thinks his employee, John McGee, is learning a lot.

Centers: John is just leaps and bounds, it's just incredible the progress he's made.

Centers cites a specific example. McGee was taking a class in statistical analysis at a time when he and Centers were trying to reduce overtime at the casino. Because of the skills McGee was learning in class, he was able to make a series of charts to identify departments that were using the most overtime.

Centers: And as a result of that kind of analysis, and then working with the departments that had the greatest opportunity first, we were able to very quickly and efficiently reduce overtime spent by upwards of 35 percent in about a three-week process. So being able to analyze that data, and understand trends, and be able to predict the next result of a particular process based on historical data, is very important in our business.

Centers says when he's making hiring decisions, a degree often makes the difference - but what a person knows and is able to do is the key to keeping a job, and moving up. John McGee says having a degree gives him a sense of control over his life that he didn't have before.

McGee: I've worked through 14, 15 years of working at the leisure of somebody else, you know, and not really have a whole lot of control over it, just being glad I had a job. Well now I'm sitting here today going, I got a job. Big deal. I feel like if I lose this one today, not being naive, not being cocky, but at least I can walk out of here and be marketable. And that's what helps me go about my job. People say John, why you so happy? Because I'm doing something to put myself in a position where if I have to make a change, I'm pretty suited to make that change. That's a good feeling. That's ... that's the best feeling of all.

[Music: "Mississippi Delta Frog Pond Blues (guitar blues)" - Jordan Lee Kirby - Guitar Blues from Myrtle Beach to New Orleans - Jordan Lee Kirby]

Not everyone with a college degree is feeling so confident. There are plenty of college graduates who can't find jobs. But things are worse for people who don't have degrees; they are twice as likely to be unemployed. Georgetown economist Tony Carnevale says educated workers are becoming increasingly valuable because many lower-skilled jobs are being shipped overseas and because computers do a lot of the mundane, repetitive work now. What's left are more complex tasks that require people to solve problems and work together.

Carnevale: Skills that used to be reserved for senior technical people or managers are more and more required because it's less a matter of standing in front of a machine and doing the same thing over and over again - uh, you're left more and more exploiting the machine, interacting with customers and interacting with your co-workers. So, the skill requirements have grown enormously, and more importantly, they've grown across a wide array of occupations.

The wage gap between people who have bachelor's degrees and people with only a high school diploma has nearly doubled since the early 1980s. People with degrees are more likely to have health and retirement benefits. They're more likely to be satisfied with their jobs. Economist Sandy Baum, who studies the benefits of degrees, says college graduates are also healthier and more likely to read to their children.

Sandy Baum: Now you have to be careful about this, because we know that it's not random who goes to college. So some people argue that it's just that the people who go to college are talented and their lives are going to be better and more successful anyway.

It's a reasonable argument, says Baum.

Baum: But there's been a lot of testing done, lots of sophisticated statistical analyses, and they all show that in fact, for similar people, going to college changes you in ways that change the way you behave, the choices that you make. And, you become as a result of that college education, a more productive and better-paid member of the labor force.

Baum says it's not clear what happens in college that changes people, but they do change.

Baum: They seem to follow instructions better; they seem to be more tuned in to acquiring knowledge about the world around them. I think one of the interesting things is looking at smoking patterns because before it was widely known that cigarette smoking is harmful to your health, college-educated people smoked at least as much as those without a college degree. As soon as this information became available, smoking rates for college graduates plummeted. And the smoking rates for others have declined, but much more slowly and now there's a big gap. So it seems that the way that you process information is different.

In addition to general knowledge and thinking skills, economist Tony Carnevale says there's something else people can get from a college education.

Carnevale: The ability to move among people who are upper-middle class, a comfort level, so that you move easily into those kinds of environments. So there is a class dimension to this.

An interesting question about people with some college and no degree is what if any advantages they gain from the time they do spend in school. It turns out there is an earnings advantage to having some college, says economist Sandy Baum:

Baum: For every year of education, the earnings of typical workers do increase, and unemployment rates decrease.

There's a bigger payoff if you finish a degree though, and even more advantage if you go on to graduate school - which is why there is so much at stake in getting college dropouts to come back. Still, the fact that there is an earnings advantage to having some college suggests there's value in going even if you never earn a credential. But if there's something significant about being in a college environment and learning to move among peers, will online programs like CALL in Louisiana give people the same advantage? Advocates for online programs say this is the wrong question. A lot of college dropouts will never come back unless they're given new and different options, says Tracey Rizzuto, an industrial psychologist at Louisiana State University.

Tracey Rizzuto: There's an acknowledgement that if learning is to occur, if access to education is going to occur, it's going to happen through the online medium.

Rizzuto is studying the CALL program in Louisiana. It's difficult to draw many conclusions yet about whether the program is effective: it's still relatively new and it's small - only a few hundred students have graduated to date. Most of them had jobs when they started and one of the main reasons they wanted a degree was to get a promotion or a new job. So far, about 30 percent of them have. Rizzuto is continuing to track graduates to see how they do in the job market over the next few years. Rizzuto says her biggest concern about adults who are trying to go back to college is money.

Rizzuto: The number one barrier is finances. You know, simply having the money to be able to pay tuition. Most adult learners are financing their education on their own.

Sixty percent of students in the CALL program pay primarily out of pocket and only about half get any kind of financial aid. CALL graduate John McGee got almost all of his degree paid for by the casino where he works, but most students get no help from their employers. Many are like Marilyn Johnson Jackson and have to take out loans. Jackson says she owes about $20,000 from the night classes she took when she first tried going back to college and another $12,000 from the CALL program. That's $32,000, and all she has to show for it so far is an associate's degree.

Jackson (to colleague): Is Tasha out there? Tasha, go ahead and start taking your batches off hold and then we'll get 'em checked. If there's any corrections we'll go back and make 'em ...

Jackson is in her office, calling out instructions to one of the women she supervises. She works at the same state hospital where she started more than 20 years ago. Since getting her degree, Jackson has been promoted to billing manager and now oversees ten employees. But the promotion came with only a modest salary increase because of a state budget crisis. Jackson is hoping to someday get a bachelor's degree - some of her student loan debt is for classes she's already taken towards that degree - but she recently quit college again because the debt is stressing her out. She says a bachelor's degree will have to wait until she can pay for it without taking out more loans.

Woman: Sing something, go on and sing something!
Little Girl: Oh, you better watch out, you better watch out, better not shout, Santa Claus is coming to town! Yea! That's all! [Clapping]

This is Jackson's five-year-old daughter Jayden, singing into a toy microphone. She's entertaining her uncle and grandmother who have come over for Sunday dinner. While Jayden entertains, her mom cooks in the kitchen. Marilyn Jackson says at this point, getting a bachelor's degree is more about personal fulfillment - and setting an example for her children - than it is about her career. In ten years she can retire from the state hospital; she doesn't think she can afford to finish her bachelor's degree in time for it to make much of a difference there. In an ideal world she would have gotten the degree a long time ago, but she's not thinking about that now. Jackson's more interested in making sure her kids get educated. Her son is almost 20. She says he tried college but it was a struggle. Now he has a new plan.

Jackson: He decided that he would rather have vocational training than he would college, you know. I just want him to get his life on the right track and so all of my research says he can make decent money - $25, $50 an hour - doing heating and air. Sounds good to me, son, you know. I just want him to be able to take care of himself. So college is probably not in his future, and I'm OK with that.

The reality is that college is not for everyone. Jackson's son is going to trade school. This kind of career training is often overlooked in the push to get more people to go to college says Georgetown economist Tony Carnevale.

Carnevale: It used to be, and it still is pretty much, that people think of college as the bachelor's degree and then there are graduate degrees. And those are growing in demand, to be sure. What has changed in the last 15 to 20 years is these new species of post-secondary educational attainment that have arisen largely because of labor-market demand.

These kinds of degrees are generally referred to as postsecondary certificates.

Carnevale: They tend to be very efficient. There's very little general education associated with them. That is you don't take history, foreign language. You take whatever it is you need to know to do a machinist's job. And the math that you take, if the program's run well, you will need math in a lot of these occupations. But you won't get Algebra II, you'll get the math that's required to run the machines and do the work in your occupation. It's a very different kind of education. It's very different from more general kinds of education.

People can get certificates in a wide range of fields, from traditional industrial arts to health care - one of the fastest growing segments of the economy. Carnevale says demand for workers with specific skills in these areas is growing. He predicts that by the year 2018, the United States will need at least 4.7 million more workers with post-secondary certificates. And the nation will fall short unless more people start getting this kind of education.

[Music - "South Street" - Bobby Ross Avila and Natural - The Flow - Thump Records]

Stephen Smith: You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, Some College, No Degree. I'm Stephen Smith.

Coming up, we'll explore the world of certificate programs.

Experts say the country needs more people to get certificates because the economy needs skilled workers. For people who don't make it through college, a certificate can mean a boost in income - along with a new career as a nursing assistant, or a mechanic, or an industrial maintenance technician.

Technical school student: This gives me an opportunity to start something and finish something for really the first time in my life.

Some experts argue that certificates are a good option for a lot of people; there are students who need to acknowledge they won't make it through college, and need to go to trade school instead.

Baum: If you look at the people who say that and you ask them whether their kids have gone to college, of course their kids have gone to college. It's other people's kids who shouldn't go to college.

Carnevale: People will line up to go to Georgetown but they'll tend to be white, affluent, and those are the kids that will get access to this and people who are African American, Hispanic or low-income more and more will get training.

To read more about why college students drop out, what their options are, and why degrees matter, visit our website, americanradioworks.org.

Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation for Education and the Spencer Foundation.

Some College, No Degree returns in a minute from APM, American Public Media.

Part 2

Stephen Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, Some College, No Degree. I'm Stephen Smith.

Janet Harris: Hello, does anybody have a camera? Somebody's been out to Pepperdine!
Female student: Yes ...

April is a busy month in the college counseling office at Rockville High School in Maryland. Counselor Janet Harris snaps a photo of a student wearing an orange t-shirt that says Pepperdine University, where the student was recently accepted. Next, Harris helps a student just beginning the college application process.

Harris: And are you a junior? Or ... ?
Student: I'm a junior.
Harris: You're a junior, OK, definitely look on that because they have the Nordstrom Scholarship ...

Most students at Rockville High have been thinking about college for a long time, says senior Chris Brown.

Chris Brown: Our society enforces, from the day we step into elementary school, that college is where we should go.

Brown's parents are both college graduates. He says there was never any question he would go. Senior Theresa Tinta is headed to college next year, too. She came to the United States three years ago from Peru. She'll be the first in her family to go to college.

Theresa Tinta: I think not going to college is not an option. It's something that you have to do.

Stan Jones: The message has really taken hold.

This is Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, an organization established in 2009 to increase college graduation rates. He says "college for all" has become a mantra in the United States. More people are going to college than ever before.

Jones: We have more minorities than we ever have. More women. More women than men. We have more low-income, more first-generation students than we ever have. But if you look at the graduating class in the spring, that, that does not look like the rest of the country. It's still overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly middle class and upper middle class.

It's a huge injustice, Jones says, and more has to be done to help students get through college. But at the same time, he thinks it's important to acknowledge that college isn't for everyone. He says students need to learn about the range of options available after high school. Jones points to post-secondary certificates as a good alternative. Certificates prepare people to do things like maintain heating and air conditioning systems or work as nursing assistants. Most people who get certificates go to community colleges or for-profit trade schools. One of the most successful certificate programs in the country is a system of public, post-secondary schools in Tennessee. The Tennessee Technology Centers are not only showing how vocational training can be done, but the Centers' educational approach also offers a model for how traditional colleges might do things differently in order to help more people complete degrees. Here is American RadioWorks producer Emily Hanford.

[Sound of door opening]
Cameron: Mommy!
Chermil Balbalose: Hi, Cameron [laughs]. That's Cameron. That's my baby boy.

Emily Hanford: Chermil Balbalose is returning home after a long day.

Balbalose: Hi Ryan.
Ryan: Mommy! [Laughs]

Balbalose's daughter Ryan is five. She's cutting up paper with pink plastic scissors; three-year old Cameron is playing with a robot that shoots foam darts.

Cameron: It's a missile.
Balbalose: Where's daddy?
Ryan: He's getting ready for work.
Balbalose: He is? OK.

Balbalose left home this morning at seven. Now it's three. Her husband will be heading out soon for his shift at a factory. Once Balbalose gets the kids fed and off to bed, she'll prepare for her day tomorrow - by studying for a test. Balbalose is a student at the Tennessee Technology Center in Murfreesboro. It's not a college. It's a certificate program. Balbalose is learning to be a pharmacy technician.

Instructor: What is the actual medical term that describes the effect of my blood pressure dropping low? [Class mumbles] Orthostatic hypotension, very good ...

Today Balbalose's instructor begins class with a brief review. Then, students work in small groups to memorize the names and uses of different drugs.

Male student: What is the brand name for lisdexamfetamine?
Balbalose: What?
Other male student: That's not how you pronounce it but ...
Male student: It's not LYES-dexa-fetamine?
Balbalose: LIZ-dexa-fetamine.
Male student: LIZ-dex-fetamine ...

There are 16 students in this class. They're all wearing scrubs like they might when they have jobs in hospitals or pharmacies. The idea here is to make school as much like work as possible. Classes are five days a week from 7:45 to 2:30, with no summer break. You have to be here and on time every day.

Instructor: Which drug was it that you had to be careful of because of the, um, the teeth, uh, concern?
Student: Doxycycline.
Instructor: Doxycycline. What does it do to teeth, though, do you remember?

After eight months in this classroom, these pharmacy technician students do a four-month clinical rotation. All of the programs at the Tennessee Technology Centers include hands-on training. Most programs take less than 18 months to complete. When students graduate, the school helps them find employment; more than 75 percent get jobs in their field. Chermil Balbalose is expecting to make about $23,000 a year to start.

Balbalose: I probably couldn't support my family on my own with that money but certainly with me and my husband together, it makes a huge difference. It'll put us in a whole new income bracket [laughs] we always usually just wave at [laughs].

Balbalose says she wanted to go to college after high school, but she didn't think her family could afford it.

Balbalose: Money was pretty tight. We always had what we needed, sometimes a lot of things that we wanted. But we knew that, you know, we were lower income, sometimes we had, um, things like food stamps and, you know, sometimes my mom was just barely getting by and that's why I started working at 14 because I wanted to do whatever I can to help her, even if it was just taking care of my own basic needs so, yeah, it was, it was pretty tight growing up.

Balbalose decided to go into the Navy after high school. That's where she met her husband. He'd already dropped out of college, so when they left the military they decided she'd give college a try. She enrolled at the University of Phoenix - the world's largest for-profit university. Balbalose took classes at the school's campus in Nashville.

Balbalose: It wasn't terribly hard. It was just very expensive - very, very expensive.

Balbalose ended up taking out about $7,000 dollars in student loans. Her husband already had twice that much debt from his time in college. While she was at the University of Phoenix, Balbalose got pregnant. When the baby arrived, getting to class was tough, so she signed up for an online course. But online didn't work for her.

Balbalose: Always felt like I was kind of screaming out for help and I would get help days later, you know, whereas when I'm in the classroom, I can raise my hand and ask a question.

Babalose dropped the online class and decided school was too much. She and her husband couldn't figure out how to juggle college, childcare, bills and their debt. She took a job at a call center. Her husband was working overtime at the factory, but it still wasn't enough.

Balbalose: We knew somebody had to go back to school so I was like, that's me! [Laughs]

Balbalose searched around for something that would be faster - and cheaper - than college. She found the Tennessee Technology Center.

Carol Puryear: Good morning. How's everybody doing? Did you all have a good weekend?

Carol Puryear is the director of the Technology Center at Murfreesboro. She marches down the hall with a big ring of keys and a smile for every student. The Tech Center is located in an old building on a strip off the highway, one door down from the unemployment office. Puryear says the idea is that people who have lost jobs can walk over and sign up to learn something new.

Puryear: Students walk out of here and they are able to have a very good life, with or without further education.

Students can get trained in a range of health care fields like pharmacy technology, dental assisting and practical nursing. These are the most popular programs. Almost all practical nurses in Tennessee get their training at one of 27 technology centers across the state. Students can also learn more traditional vocations like industrial electrical maintenance. Miles Jones is a student in that program. He went to college, but says it was mostly to please his mom.

Miles Jones: School - it was, it was more for me ... because I was young at the time, it was more of a party. And it was too much information at one time on different subjects, English, math and then your major, too much at once on me.

So he left. Went into the Army, worked as a welder for several years, then got laid off. He started at the Technology Center a few months ago. When Jones graduates, he'll get a diploma that certifies him to repair and maintain industrial equipment. He'll also have something called a Career Readiness Certificate. To get the certificate, students take a standardized test that measures their math and reading skills. Every student needs to achieve a certain level on the test, depending on the program they're in, says director Carol Puryear.

Puryear: And so let's say they scored a three in math and they need to be a seven - then those students twice a week will come back to the tech foundations lab and work on their skills.

The Tech Foundations Lab is a classroom full of computers. Students work at their own pace. There's an instructor to help when they need it. Student Sam Coon, who dropped out of college 17 years ago, just started at the Tech Center.

Sam Coon: I didn't pass all levels of my math, so I'm just dusting off the old math skills from quite a while ago.

There are no remedial classes at the Tennessee Technology Centers. Instead, everyone comes to the Tech Foundations Lab until they pass their test. Director Carol Puryear says most pass by the end of their second trimester.

Puryear: Every student is treated the same. It's not that they can't do anything until they finish remedial work or the Tech Foundations. They're in their regular classroom except for a couple of hours a week.

This is dramatically different from the way remedial education works at most traditional colleges. Typically, students must complete remedial classes before they can take courses for their major; many get frustrated and quit. And they don't get to work at their own pace. They take a course for a set number of weeks. If they pass, they move on; if not, they start over. At the Tennessee Technology Centers, it's not about how long you sit in class, it's about demonstrating what you know - not just in Tech Foundations, but in other courses too says Puryear.

Puryear: Everyone's on an individualized training program. So if you come in and you excel in brakes in automotive, you will move through that section faster and then when you get to the electronics you may have to slow down a little bit.

Puryear thinks this individualized approach to learning is one reason so many students are successful here. About 70 percent graduate. The comparable rate at Tennessee's community colleges is 11 percent. Something else that helps students succeed at the Tech Centers is the way the schedule works.

Instructor: Morgan.
Morgan: Here.
Instructor: April.
April: Here.
Instructor: Savannah.
Savannah: Here.
Instructor: Ally.
Ally: Here ...

This is morning roll call in the dental assisting class. Student Savannah Smith says the fact that school runs everyday from 7:45 to 2:30 makes it easier for her to arrange childcare for her daughter and commit to a regular shift at the restaurant where she works. Smith originally wanted to be a pharmacist and went to Middle Tennessee State University. The way class schedules worked there made it hard for her.

Savannah Smith: Your options are only Monday, Wednesday or Friday, or Tuesday and Thursday or one day a week.

But here ...

Smith: There's no scheduling. I don't have to worry about times and classes - and am I going to get this class or am I going to pay for a whole year of college and only get to go to two classes cause I couldn't find the times for other ones?

Smith says the dental assisting program is perfect for her.

Smith: I like interacting with my patients. My teacher is amazing here and she can talk to 16 girls on a different level than a professor at MTSU could because she knows us. She sees us everyday. She can tell when something's wrong or why our grades are slipping and she can help us bring them up.

Suzanne Dowdle: When you take your bitewings you're going to do four projections each. You're going to do right and left molar, right and left premolar. So you will have four size two films, OK?

The instructor for this class is Suzanne Dowdle. Today she's showing her students how to take X-rays. They're practicing on a patient named Dexter. He's a plastic skull on a steel rod propped up on a dental chair. Smith and her classmates are having a hard time getting Dexter's jaw to open. Dowdle comes over to help.

Dowdle: OK, see how this is going to hit this? So you're probably going to want to move him around like this.
Students: Ohh ...
Dowdle: And come on this side ...

Many college students don't get small classes and personal attention like this, at least not at the beginning while they're fulfilling general education requirements. For Smith, all of those requirements were part of the problem with college. She didn't like English and history.

Smith: I was so burnt out on wanting to be a pharmacist 'cause I had to go through all this stuff that I didn't care for, I didn't like. But I had to do that before I could even enter my four years of pharmacy school.

Smith has given up on the idea of ever becoming a pharmacist. As a dental assistant, she won't make nearly as much money - but she'll make more than she's making as a waitress. Smith is focused on paying the bills now, not a decade from now.

Chris Ayers: OK, so you are interested in nursing?
Student: Yes, I am.
Ayers: In the fall?
Student: Yes ...

Chris Ayers is the coordinator of student services at the Murfreesboro Technology Center. Today he's meeting with a woman who walked over from the unemployment office next door. Martha Gorman was recently laid off from her job as a restaurant manager. At one time she'd been working on a degree in nursing, but she says her job and her kids got in the way.

Martha Gorman: I'm not sure if you saw the huge monkey on my back in terms of me not finishing my degree.

People are often shy to admit they dropped out of college, says Chris Ayers. He thinks that's unfortunate.

Ayers: We put so much focus on, "I want my kid to go to college." You know. It's almost like a societal communication thing. We get to go to lunch with our best friend and say, 'Little Johnny signed up for college today.' Or we get to go to church and we say, 'Little Janie's not going to be able to be at church with us this weekend because she left, this is her first week in college in the dorm.'

Ayers says not enough students even know that technical school is an option. Research shows high school counselors are often reluctant to tell students about anything other than college for fear they would be tracking them into less desirable alternatives. But for laid-off restaurant manager Martha Gorman, it's a relief to have another option. She had no idea she could study nursing at a school like this. She leaves with a huge smile, and an application for the practical nursing program.

Gorman: Thank you so much Chris, I appreciate it!

If Gorman gets the practical nursing degree, she'll almost certainly be able to get a job. Licensed practical nurses are in demand and in Tennessee they make an average of about $40,000 a year. Gorman hopes to use that income to go back and finish her bachelor's degree someday. Amy Curtis, who teaches practical nursing at the Technology Center in Murfreesboro, says more people should consider going to technical school first. She thinks there will always be a place for traditional college education but ...

Amy Curtis: I've become convinced that maybe it should happen later in life. That maybe we should teach everybody a trade, they should all come to technical school, learn to do a job, develop how it is to work with people, and then have a little bit more of a focus to go back now with a goal in mind to have a degree. Other instructors: That's a good idea. It is. Uh-huh. I think so.

Several of Curtis's colleagues are sitting with her, and they're all nodding their heads.

Instructors: Get it done now, and then pick up the other things later on. When you're more mature. We've got it all backwards. Uh-huh. Yeah.

Going to trade school first and back to college later is a great idea, says economist Tony Carnevale. Problem is, it almost never happens.

Tony Carnevale: People don't come back. They don't have time to come back.

They don't have the money either. And for most students, the Tennessee Technology Center is free. Federal grants and a state financial aid program completely cover tuition and fees for the majority of them. Pharmacy Tech student Chermil Balbalose still has $7,000 in loans from her first try at college - but she will have no new debt when she graduates from this program.

Balbalose: None whatsoever. And that in itself is a great feeling. It's a really good feeling.

An education at a Tennessee Technology Center is a bargain even with no financial aid. The total cost for most programs is less than $5,000, a fraction of what it would cost to get a bachelor's degree from a state university. Costs are low because there's no campus center, no sports program, no research labs - it's just the basics. And that's all students who come here can afford. Most of them are from households with incomes of less than $24,000 a year, and nearly half report annual incomes of less than $12,000. Economist Sandy Baum says a lot of low-income students learn the hard way that a college degree is out of reach for them.

Sandy Baum: Systematically, people who come from low-income backgrounds are at greater risk for not having college work out for them.

Some of this has to do with the fact that students from poor families are more likely to go to poor high schools and not be academically prepared for college. But even top-performing students from poor families are less likely than low-achieving wealthy students to get bachelor's degrees.

Carnevale: We have a problem, we have a stratification problem.

This is Georgetown University's Tony Carnevale.

Carnevale: We have built a perfect system that sorts people by race, class and ethnicity very aggressively and is continuing to do that.

America is not supposed to have a system that sorts people like this, says Carnevale. In fact, one of the reasons most high school counselors have adopted a "college for all" mantra is to avoid tracking poor and minority students into technical schools and more privileged ones into four-year colleges. But it's happening anyway - only many of the students who wouldn't have gone to college a generation ago are now giving it a shot, and dropping out with lots of debt and no degree. Carnevale says young people need counselors to tell them about all their options.

Carnevale: The very difficult, "threading the needle" exercise in America is: we have to give people realistic pathways but we can't track. And to some extent those two values are in conflict and always will be.

People who don't go to college, or don't finish, can boost their earnings by getting a postsecondary certificate. Some people with certificates end up doing better than people with bachelor's degrees. But on average, over a lifetime, someone with a college degree will make significantly more money than someone with just a certificate. And the skills that come with a certificate may not be easily transferable to other fields, says Luke Dowden. He's director of the CALL program in Louisiana that helps returning adults get college degrees. He says having a degree gives people more flexibility.

Luke Dowden: They're not locked in to what they're doing, always. And when their job goes, they can then grow into something else. They've got options that would not avail themselves to them without the degree.

Still, even people with college degrees do benefit from additional training. Many students who come to the Tennessee Technology Centers have already graduated from college, but find they need more specific skills to get the jobs they want. Economist Tony Carnevale says undergraduate colleges in America have never been good at preparing students for jobs. He thinks they need to do better. But he says educators are concerned that college will become job training.

Carnevale: They fear that the liberal arts, humanities, foreign language and the more academic curriculum will go the way of Greek and Classics. It will always be here at Georgetown. People will line up to go to Georgetown but they'll tend to be white, affluent, and those are the kids that will get access to this and people who are African American, Hispanic or low-income more and more will get training.

[Music: "Fleece on Brain" - Matthew Dear - We'll Never Stop Living this Way - Ghostly International]

There's no easy fix to the stratification problem in higher education. Carnevale calls it the "exquisite American dilemma." On the one hand, everyone should be encouraged to get a college degree because it's the path most likely to lead to the middle class. On the other hand, the higher education system is not set up so that students who need the most help end up getting it. Stan Jones of Complete College America says colleges need to start taking responsibility for the millions of people who are quitting. He says for too long, colleges expected some of their students to fail.

Jones: Those of us that are older all remember presidents who stood at freshman orientation and, you know, would point and say look to the right, look to the left, you know, one of you isn't going to be here in four years - with kind of this pride of, you know, we're giving you an opportunity, and it's really up to you whether you make it or not.

Jones says the nation can no longer afford this attitude. He thinks colleges have to change.

Jones: It's remarkable to me: we have thousands of colleges in the country and we all do things pretty much the same.

Jones is a fan of the Tennessee Technology Centers. He thinks elements of that model could work at traditional colleges: a consistent, daily schedule to make it easier for students to arrange work and child care; remedial education that's built into the broader curriculum; and a system that allows students to work at their own pace. There are some colleges experimenting with these ideas. But there's a lot of debate. Should colleges change to meet the needs of a new group of students - or should those students rethink whether they're really cut out for college? Economist Sandy Baum says she's hearing a lot of people make the argument that too many kids are going to college now, and that alarms her.

Baum: If you look at the people who say that and you ask them whether their kids have gone to college, of course their kids have gone to college. It's other people's kids who shouldn't go to college. And I'm afraid that much of this argument is based on the idea that they don't actually want to pay for other people's kids to go to college.

Baum says if more low-income students are going to get college degrees, it's going to cost society money. Low-income students can't do it on their own. Baum thinks the kind of technical education a student can get at the Tennessee Technology Centers is an important option; but she says everyone needs the option of getting a degree too.

Chermil Balbalose's Husband: Bye.
Ryan: Bye daddy! Bye daddy!
Chermil Balbalose: Be careful. Hey - where's your jacket?
Husband: Oh yeah.

Chermil Balbalose's husband is leaving for his shift at the factory. Kids Ryan and Cameron kiss him goodbye. Balbalose says there's no question she will encourage her children to go to college.

Balbalose: I want them to do better than me. Like, I want them to do whatever it is they want to do because I know that they're capable of it. But most of all, I don't want money to be the thing that holds them back from doing it. So that's why I'm busting my hump. [Laughs]

Surveys show almost all American parents want their children to go to college - even parents who dropped out of college themselves. Their dream is for their kids to finish what they couldn't. Chermil Balbalose is hoping she'll find a way to eventually go back and finish her degree. Ultimately, she wants to go to pharmacy school.

Balbalose: I'm going to give it a shot, because I think I can do it. And I think I'll like it. And pharmacists make good money. And I ...
Hanford: What's good money? What do they make?
Balbalose: I want to say starting out at about $100,000. That could change my family's life.

And she knows that if she finishes her degree, her children are more likely to finish theirs.

[Music: "Hip Hop Instrumentals 021" - Hip Hop Instrumentals 168 Tracks - GiallaniRecords.com]

Stephen Smith: Statistically speaking, Chermil Balbalose is not likely to make it to pharmacy school. But there are always people who beat the odds. Advocates for those who have some college but no degree say the nation needs to do more to increase the odds for everyone in this group. Of course, some people who drop out of college don't want a degree. Others are close to retirement and a degree may not make sense. And still others are well established in careers and don't need to go back to school. But a lot of students who drop out of college are like Chermil Balbalose and the other people you heard in this story - they've got to find a way to finish some kind of higher education in order to make life better for themselves and their families. The stakes are high - not just for them, but for the country. If America wants a skilled workforce, it will need to get more college dropouts to go back to school - and finish.

You've been listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, Some College, No Degree. It was produced by Emily Hanford and edited by Catherine Winter. The web producer is Andy Kruse. The American RadioWorks team includes Suzanne Pekow, Ellen Guettler, Craig Thorsen, Frankie Barnhill, Paul Tosto and Judy McAlpine.

I'm Stephen Smith.

We have more about this topic on our website, Americanradioworks.org. You can explore data that shows why college degrees matter and learn about programs designed to bring students back. That's Americanradioworks.org. While you're there, you can tell us what you think of this program, sign up for our weekly podcast, and search through our archives of more than 150 documentaries.

Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation for Education and the Spencer Foundation.

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