How will those who do not attend college, or who end up not finishing college, make a connection to jobs that offer a genuine career path: that is, reasonably stable paychecks, building skills and responsibilities over time, wage raises, and health care and retirement benefits? The most popular answer is that public policy should encourage more of these students should attend college, but I'm skeptical about that answer.
From the student point of view, imagine someone who has struggled to make it through K-12 schooling, perhaps consistently ranking in, say, the 30th percentile of academic performance. That person has for years received a consistent message that academic studies are not their strong point. Telling such a person that the route to adult success involves yet more years of study, this time in a more academically intense environment where they are likely to be closer to the bottom and to struggle even harder, doesn't seem like a positive message to send.
This point is an uncomfortable one to make. It's emotionally much easier to remember true stories about a student who didn't seem to be doing well, but then soared. I like it that the US education system offers a range of multiple chances to those who want to keep trying that path. But it's a hard reality that not all students will soar academically. As a mathematical fact, 50% of all students will always perform below the median, and 25% will fall into the bottom quarter. We need alternative pathways to job and career success that don't assume a college degree is the right path for everyone.
For example, I've written a number of times on this blog about the need for expanded programs of apprenticeships (for example, here, here, and here). In addition, I regret the trend away from career and technical education at the high school level. The National Center for Education Statistics collects statistics through its Career/Technical Education division. Here's one figure showing trends in the areas where high school students take their credits. Lots of areas are up, but career/technical education (CTE) is down. At a time when one of the major problems of the US economy is connecting those with lower academic skills to decent jobs, this seems like a mistake. My sense is that a lot of high schools are implicitly defining their mission as "pre-college," even while knowing that most of their students will not follow a four-year college path.
Here's another figure showing the breakdown within areas of career/technical education from the National Center for Education Statistics. The big growth areas since 1990 are communications and design, health care, and public services. The biggest drops since 1990 are in business, manufacturing, and (perhaps surprisingly) computer and information services.
here and here) or for the decline in U.S. rates of entrepreneurship (as discussed here and here). But if fewer high school students are being prepared to consider careers in these areas, then perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise when these areas don't flourish.