WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan decried the “false choice” between career readiness and college readiness Wednesday in response to a Harvard University study that suggests high schools should steer many students toward occupational education rather than four years of college study.

Career preparation and college preparation must both be part of a successful high school curriculum, Duncan said. (Photo by Rebecca Cohen/Medill News Service)

“Too often career readiness has been an afterthought,” Duncan said at a panel on the findings of Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century, a report by analysts from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “It’s easier to define college readiness.”

American culture overemphasizes attending a four-year college as the only path to success, said Pathways to Prosperity lead researcher Robert Schwartz, who also spoke at the panel. By expanding high schools’ occupational education curricula and promoting options such as community college or apprenticeships, the U.S. could ease frustration and boost employment among its youth, he said.

Only 30 percent of Americans earn a bachelor’s degree by age 30, Schwartz said. And only a third of the 47 million jobs the U.S. is expected to create between 2008 and 2018 will require one.

“We are the only developed nation that depends so exclusively on its higher education system as the sole educational vehicle to help young people transition from secondary school to careers,” Schwartz said.

Duncan praised the report’s call for a re-examination of career and technical education programs. If schools and employers collaborate on such programs, they can attract students who might otherwise drop out, bored with academic classes.

The secretary stressed that preparing students for the workforce goes hand-in-hand with preparing them for higher education. The Obama administration remains committed to ensuring the U.S. college graduation rate is the highest in the world by 2020, Duncan said.

Career and technical education programs in Baltimore City Public Schools had a dropout rate of less than 1 percent last year, said Baltimore Public Schools CEO Andres Alonso, another panel member. The overall dropout rate in the city’s school system is about 50 percent.

“We’re finding that these programs have a huge role in creating engagement,” Alonso said.

Duncan said his own experience as CEO of Chicago Public Schools showed him both the value of occupational education programs and the challenges they face. Culinary equipment sat on the roof of one Chicago school for years because adapting the school’s plumbing to make it usable was such a low priority, he said. And districts must be careful to avoid tracking minority students into vocational programs rather than college-oriented ones, as has happened in the past.

But Chicago Public Schools has since strengthened its emphasis on vocational education, and enrollment in internship programs increased by a third between 2008 and 2010 as a result, Duncan said. Graduates of career and technical education programs are more likely to enroll in college than other Chicago Public Schools graduates.

“The mission going forward is to refine and scale what works,” Duncan said.