A common way to think about higher education is the straight line – which leads to high school, college, and then a job. But for most college students, what actually happens is very confusing and sparse.
Life happens. The study is interrupted by important life events, such as the birth of a child or the illness of a parent. Other workers may not go directly to college but they may get some training about the job or maybe some other small program. And maybe people will come back to a campus or online event or maybe find another way to get the education they need.
Our podcast guests this week are looking for people with “educational underground” – experimental programs and “hidden credentials” that aren’t in line with the college’s traditional straight line.
That guest is Peter Smith and he has been advocating for new models of adult education for over 50 years – as the founder of the experimental college – Community College of Vermont. Smith has held political office over time as Lieutenant Governor of Vermont and later as a member of the U.S. Congress in that state.
Although he thought he knew the data in educational policy, he wanted to better understand the living experiences of adult students. So in the last two years they conducted extensive interviews with 20 students who did not fit into the traditional education system.
And he says the research surprised him and changed him.
He says, “I knew the data in my head, but I didn’t know in my heart the story of how race, gender, sexual preference, income … play an unequal negative role in determining who gets access. Opportunity should be found in the traditional way. ”
The stories in his book show resilient people overcoming obstacles and it can be tempting to describe them as fulfilling the American myth of pulling oneself through their bootstrap. As regular listeners know we’re exploring this in a podcast series we’re producing a product called Bootstrap. But Smith says he’s actually backtracking on that idea, because a recurring theme is that these hardworking people got help at a crucial moment, or found experimental programs that made their hard work possible.
“He’s the protagonist of a sad saga where millions of other people can’t navigate the path of opportunity,” he writes at the end of his book, describing the students he spoke to. “As a society, we need these stories to be mainstream reality, with no exceptions to the rules. And we need these ‘underground stories’ to be part of the public consciousness while respecting and validating personal education and work experience.”
Edgers was sitting with Smith at the ASU GSV conference in San Diego last week.