MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now, it's pretty much a given these days that high school graduates are supposed to go to college. About 7 out of 10 graduates say that's where they're headed. And yet, there's a growing concern that this push for college as the only option is missing something - job skills that employers in hospitality, retail, accounting and marketing say they're looking for. Claudio Sanchez of NPR's Ed team visited one high school recently that's sending a different message.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Willamette High School in Eugene, Ore., is a big, sprawling campus where on any given morning, you're likely to get a powerful whiff of freshly ground coffee coming from Willy's Cafe, the student-run coffee shop, which is actually a class that teaches students how to make a double shot latte without making a mess.
CARRIE GILBERT: You're going to want to steam the milk first, and then once you have the coffee, dump it in and...
SANCHEZ: Carrie Gilbert, 17, gets paid for helping manage Willy's Cafe and training other aspiring baristas. The service is courteous and fast. All right. My latte's ready.
It's not bad. It doesn't have the whole milk that I usually want, but it's very tasty. Good.
Willy's is part of DECA, Distributive Education Clubs of America, a merchandising course, one of 40 vocational courses at Willamette High.
We'll come back to Willy's in a moment, but let's think about this for a minute. What if your child wasn't all that crazy about going to college and she came home one day and told you she was training as a barista at school?
ANTHONY CARNEVALE: If it were my kid, I wouldn't let it happen because the truth is the tried and true path in America is high school to Harvard.
SANCHEZ: Not Starbucks, says Anthony Carnevale. He's head of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.
CARNEVALE: You don't tell middle-class Americans I'm going to send your kid to trade school.
SANCHEZ: Even good vocational programs like DECA are often viewed as a second-rate education, a pipeline to low-wage, dead-end jobs.
JOHN FISTOLERA: These are not dead-end jobs.
SANCHEZ: John Fistolera is with DECA's corporate office.
FISTOLERA: We work with business and industry to identify specific knowledge and skills that they say are required for an employee to be successful on the job.
SANCHEZ: That's been DECA's mission since the mid-1940s. But guess who else is saying that today?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm just saying, you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.
SANCHEZ: President Obama's push for career and technical education as an alternative to college is well-known, but so is his administration's even bigger push for a college education for all. Carnevale says that's a message that kids and parents should take with a grain of salt.
CARNEVALE: Every year, more than 400,000 young people in the top half of their high school class go to college, and at least eight years later they have not gained either a two-year or four-year degree or a certificate.
SANCHEZ: At Willamette High, the message to students is upbeat and simple. You need to be college ready and also prepared for the world of work.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Be sure to check the career technical education options.
SANCHEZ: Every morning, students hear about DECA and the job training opportunities the school offers. The course that 18-year-old Kareena Montalvo fell in love with - graphic design.
KAREENA MONTALVO: I can't tell you how many posters we've done for upcoming plays, musicals, and it lets me understand how artists need to meet clients' needs.
SANCHEZ: A talented artist, Kareena sees herself as an entrepreneur and down the road...
MONTALVO: I want to get my major in graphic design and a minor in marketing.
SANCHEZ: OK. Now let's get back to Willy's Cafe and Carrie Gilbert, the 17-year-old who made that tasty latte for me. She says training as a barista may not seem like a big deal, but she's also learning about those soft skills that employers say teenagers often lack - being on time, teamwork, people skills.
GILBERT: Just the overall experience prepares you for a lot of different kinds of things. I'm not really sure what I want to do exactly, but it's definitely giving me skills to prepare here.
SANCHEZ: Teachers and administrators here don't discourage students from going to college, but Dawn Delforis (ph), Willamette's assistant principal says...
DAWN DELFORIS: The thing I think does still exist is the stigma that's oftentimes attached - oh, you're not going to college?
SANCHEZ: The teenagers we talked to didn't seem to care about that. What they cared about most was getting out into the real world, earning a paycheck and most of all having an option. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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