Another viewpoint editorial: College must remain important amid a work-based education

Indianapolis Business Journal

It was just a few weeks ago that Indianapolis Business Journal editorialized about the importance of incorporating work experiences into the high school curriculum.

Our view was — and is — that policymakers and education officials should try to find new pathways that help prepare students for the workforce, whether that’s through better training in high school, post-secondary training and credentials or four-year college degrees.

The Indiana Department of Education is moving in that direction with new graduation requirements that reward students for workplace readiness.

We support the general concept. As IBJ has reported, some business leaders and education officials in Indiana are studying a system in Switzerland that emphasizes apprenticeships as a way to ensure all students gain valuable workplace experience as they choose what path to pursue as an adult. In Switzerland, nearly all high school students participate in some kind of apprenticeship — including those who go on to college.

We think the latter is an important element in any system that Indiana considers — and we say that knowing that college isn’t for everyone and that it’s expensive and that many people don’t need an advanced degree to make a good living. But Indiana’s college-going rate has already been falling, and we think it would be a mistake to do anything that might lead to it falling further.

We don’t know whether that would happen under the state’s proposed graduation requirements, but some education officials are concerned. And given the state is proposing to eliminate the Academic Honors diploma — seen as the credential students who plan to go to college pursue — we understand the anxiety.

According to Chalkbeat Indiana, beginning with the Class of 2029, students would earn either the standard Graduates Prepared to Succeed diploma (called a GPS diploma) or the workplace-focused GPS Diploma Plus. The change would end the current Core 40 diplomas including the Academic Honors diploma.

To address some concerns, the Education Department is proposing to allow students to earn seals on their transcripts indicating that they’re ready for enrollment in higher education, employment or enlistment. But the workplace-related education requirements would remain in place. To earn the higher-level diploma, students would have to complete at least 75 hours and as many as 2,000 hours of work experience. Some courses, such as foreign languages and advanced math, would not be required, although they would remain optional.

Some critics worry that students will graduate without the classes they need to be competitive in college. Others say colleges won’t look favorably on Indiana graduates because they won’t have a diploma that indicates academic honors.

We think it’s too soon to know whether those criticisms are legitimate. But we understand the concern. And while we think the Department of Education is generally headed in the right direction, we hope they will do everything they can to try to stem the drop in students going to college. Indiana needs workers across the spectrum — from people in the trades to doctors doing research. The graduation system should recognize those needs.