Some folks are born silver spoon in hand
Lord, don’t they help themselves
I see the bad moon a-rising
I see trouble on the way
- Creedence Clearwater Revival
Creedence Clearwater Revival, a band named after a beer commercial, was led by John Fogerty, a famously exacting musician whose perfectionism drove the rest of the band crazy. CCR headlined at Woodstock, but you wouldn’t know if from the record or film; Fogerty wouldn’t give his permission to include CCR’s performance because he felt it was subpar. It wasn’t his fault, claimed Fogerty, but rather the preceding act: the Grateful Dead had “put the audience to sleep.”
Fogerty wasn’t always a perfectionist, but took control in 1968 because he “didn’t want to start working at the car wash again.” So “now we had to make the best possible album and it wasn’t important who did what.” So he decided to do everything.
That’s not the kind of leadership that lasts and CCR imploded four years later. It is the kind of behavior you’d expect from someone hell-bent on escaping childhood poverty. And from Fogerty’s lyrics (Born On The Bayou – “Runnin’ through the backwood bay / I can still hear my old hound dog barkin’”; Green River – “Stoppin’ at the log where catfish bite / Walkin’ along the river road at night / Barefoot girls dancin’ in the moonlight”; Proud Mary “Cleaned a lot of plates in Memphis / Pumped a lot of ‘pane down in New Orleans”), it certainly sounds as though he grew up poor in the South. In fact, he grew up in a nice house in the Bay Area with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Fogerty tries to explain himself: “Perhaps I identified with [the South] more than kids who actually grew up in the South. I took note of [it] because [it was] so foreign to the place where I grew up.”
I have two reactions to this: (1) Huh?; (2) How appropriate for one of the progenitors of American roots music. The American Dream has always been about mobility. So why can’t a middle class kid from Berkeley pretend he grew up poor in the South?
American mobility is increasingly pretend. In the 1950s, 20% of Americans moved every year. Today it’s under 10%. Interstate moves have fallen even further, particularly for young adults. While it may be higher now for remote workers, those who can’t work remotely are stuck in place for the foreseeable future. And that’s a massive problem in an economy where all the growth over the past decade occurred in only 1/3 of America’s counties.
Although the Supreme Court just gave tens of millions of women a good reason to move and hundreds of large companies are now covering travel expenses for employees requiring reproductive healthcare, that’s not the kind of mobility anyone wants.
Opportunity in America has been increasingly driven by wealth. Now the same may be true of geography. If you happen to be born into a family of means or in the right state and county, you'll probably be fine. If neither is true, you probably won't. The Supreme Court decision simply reifies what our system of education has been doing for the past two generations. America is no longer a country where a majority or even sizable number of people born less fortunate can turn things around in a generation. Birth is increasingly destiny, choice or talent irrelevant – the opposite of the American Dream.
While Republicans are likely to experience dog-that-caught-the-car syndrome, in the interim – and it is likely to be a very long interim – we desperately need new ideas for resurrecting mobility – economic, obviously, but also geographic. We need to make it much easier for young adults of all backgrounds to make a living and choose where they want to live.
High schools try to answer this call by ensuring every graduate is “college or career ready.” Nearly every state requires school districts to report on a range of college and career readiness (CCR) metrics. However, many CCR standards are maddeningly vague or indistinguishable from high school completion. California declares a graduate college or career ready by dint of completing 15 high school courses (in history, English, math, science, foreign language, arts, electives i.e., pretty much anything) with a grade of C or better. CCR’s John Fogerty would say that doesn’t meet band standards.
Other states are much more focused on the first C in CCR. Virginia defines CCR as “the level of achievement students must reach to be academically prepared for success in entry-level credit-bearing college courses.” Iowa says it’s “the knowledge and skills a student needs to enroll and succeed in credit-bearing first-year courses at a postsecondary institution without the need for remediation.” And nearly all states rely on state tests, the ACT or SAT, and NAEP – assessments oriented around cognitive skills and academic work – to measure CCR. Even Massachusetts - where the CCR standard actually has a work ethic and professionalism component - doesn’t have better ideas than the SAT, NAEP, and the state report card (graduation rate, college enrollment).
It’s much harder for educators to assess career-readiness. Teachers have a sense of what college-ready means in terms of knowledge, skills, and abilities. But career-ready? States try to answer this by requiring districts to adopt CCR platforms like Naviance. Students who complete every guidance-counselor-assigned step on Naviance are deemed CCR-ready without regard to whether they’re actually prepared or have received meaningful guidance. This easy-to-measure check-the-box approach is where the vast majority of states have landed on CCR.
As for the boxes checked on Naviance, it’s pretty much career exploration and planning theater (“explore careers through videos”) before students are force-marched through college research and applications. That would be fine if college were doing the job. But when families with incomes over $100K represent more than half the degrees awarded to traditional age students and when 50% of twenty-four year olds with family incomes over $90K earn degrees while it’s less than 6% for families with incomes < $35K, there’s a bad mobility moon a-rising.
Just like the band members in CCR weren’t equal, the two Cs in CCR are no longer equal. In 2022, college’s affordability-employability calculus doesn’t provide the same mobility as career readiness. It’s the same for geographic mobility. Picking up and moving to a new state or city is hard. But the hardest part is figuring out how you’re going to support yourself. Because Pell grants ($6,495 last year, $6,895 next year) don’t come close to covering rent, food, and transportation, relocating for college is much less likely than relocating after having secured a job. That’s why the vast majority of young Americans not born into privilege stay home for college.
And that’s why states like Mississippi and Virginia have shifted from CCR platforms that prioritize college to new platforms that reverse the Cs. MajorClarity is the first CCR platform that puts career first, assessing interests and capabilities, providing fit scores for every career path, then putting students through interactive career “test drives.” And if postsecondary education is the best next step, college degrees and faster + cheaper pathways are laid out as equally valid options.
In addition to a more balanced approach to CCR, apprenticeship is the other key to restarting economic and geographic mobility. As I’ve noted, apprenticeships are jobs first and foremost. And a job-first approach is the best way to move someone from, say, the Bayou to the Golden Gate Bridge. Give them a job so they know they’ll be able to support themselves. Then train them on what they need to know and do to be productive.
We were once a nation of apprentices. George Washington apprenticed as a land surveyor, Benjamin Franklin as a printer, Paul Revere as a silversmith, and John Adams and Thomas Jefferson became lawyers via apprenticeship. But as John Fogerty’s fellow Boomers reached college age, we swallowed the college-for-all pill, which worked for a time and led to the current unbalanced approach to CCR. And now 60% of disadvantaged kids continue to struggle as adults. So as Brookings recognizes, “it is clear the dream is badly in need of repair.”
It’s hard to recognize college-for-all has led to our mobility problems. It’s counter-intuitive, because in most formulations, renewal of the citizenry starts and ends with something like a liberal arts education. How can something so good be so problematic? Hence the Democratic policy priorities of free college and student loan permanent moratorium/forgiveness. Most Democrats will wince at this New York Times Pitchbot tweet: “Liberals may not be happy with the decision to overturn Roe but they should at least be pleased that the Justices who overturned have such stellar intellectual credentials.” But if they’re honest, they’ll recognize the point of the satire: they’ve been privileging degrees (and the process that leads to formal credentials) at the expense of outcomes.
Imagine a nation with apprenticeship programs across all sectors of the economy. Imagine a nation with as many large-scale apprenticeship programs as there are colleges and universities. Imagine a nation where apprenticeship is as prevalent and respected as college, where high schools put as much thought into apprenticeship-readiness as college-readiness, and where all CCR platforms are like MajorClarity, puting college and apprenticeship on a level playing field. Since the typical American these days “ ain’t no fortunate son,” it’s no exaggeration to say this could renew the American Dream.