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Why Go to College?

In the distant past when relatively few people went to college, a bachelor's degree immediately set them apart.  Today, however, it no longer makes them special. What's more important, it seems, is one's major and the cachet of the college ("What College Graduates Regret," The Atlantic, Feb. 13). 

I agree that college is supposed to be more than career preparation, but I can't blame high school students for their almost exclusive focus on jobs after college graduation. "The question is whether a lavishly expensive four-year degree should at the least train you to take on some remunerative employment" (" 'The Value of the Humanities,' " The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 15).  That's because graduates are burdened with heavy debt and are competing against thousands of others for work. It's easy for older people to declare that a degree should not be seen solely in practical terms because they received theirs when conditions were totally different. 

Nevertheless, the usual argument made in favor of a bachelor's degree remains the wage premium ("Making College Pay," The New York Times, Feb. 13).  But it is misleading. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 20 occupations expected to add the most jobs between 2012 and 2022, only general and operations management requires a bachelor's degree. That doesn't mean jobs in other fields will not be created, but it does call into question the claim about the indispensability of a sheepskin for a secure financial future.  Particularly in creative fields, internships typically do not lead to employment,  ("For Interns, All Work and No Payoff," The New York Times, Feb. 14).  Further, the wage premium is reduced by student debt payments.

What is happening is predictable: College graduates are replacing high school graduates for low-wage jobs that don't require a college degree. This is seen in data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The jobless rate of those ages 25 to 34 with only a high school diploma grew to 10.6 precent in 2013 from 2007, while the jobless rate for those in the same age bracket with a college degree rose to 3.7 percent in the same period.  But don't forget that most college graduates are saddled with student debt.  

This brings me back to my oft-repeated argument about the importance of vocational education.  I think we are doing a terrible disservice to too many students by treating vocational education as inferior to academic education. What's wrong with advising students to become plumbers, electricians and auto mechanics?  This work cannot be offshored, unlike so many other jobs. Getting one's hands dirty at work can be extremely satisfying and profitable for many young people.

Another way of preparing high school students for well-paying jobs is by combining high school and community college into six-year STEM programs known as Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-Tech ("The School That Will Get You a Job," Time, Feb. 24).  When students graduate, they receive a high school diploma and an associate's degree that guarantees them a $40,000-job in the corporation that developed the curriculum.

There are those who argue that schools should not exist solely as training camps for corporations.  I agree with this view.  But the P-Tech model has great appeal to students who have no interest in a traditional academic curriculum. They want immediate gainful employment when they graduate. That is their choice, and we should respect it.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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