One Option Among Many

College is taking a beating. The costs to attend are the highest they’ve been in decades and the assurances that a degree will lead to meaningful employment are at the lowest. But what’s the alternative?

Recently, in the span of a week, I came across not just one but two reports about apprenticeship programs in technical fields. The programs, each sponsored by a company in need of skilled workers in connection with nearby high schools, teach young people the skills of a trade and provide a path that’s an alternative to college.

This got my attention. One of my best friends from high school decided to forgo college and today works in insurance. At the time, I thought he was making a mistake because for me, attending college was a forgone conclusion, a means to achieving a solid career and a clear mark of accomplishment. But lately I’m not so sure. Would my friend be making more money if he’d attended a college? Maybe. Is he worse off now than I am–me with a bachelor’s and master’s degree? Probably not.

College isn’t for everyone, nor was it ever intended to be. As more employers seek very specific sets of skills, and as the marketplace continues to change, the learning environment of college becomes less of a guarantee of success in the working world.sticker

With the costs of higher education skyrocketing, there’s no point in going deeply into debt if college is really not where your interests lie. In a class I took recently (at an institution of higher learning–yes I get the irony), we discussed college education in terms of the laws of supply and demand. The cost to supply higher education has increased due to increases in teacher salary, the costs of building or maintaining facilities, and the purchase of new equipment. At the same time, demand has increased as more and more high school graduates are made to believe that a college degree is necessary for their future success. This affects both the supply and demand curves and raises the price. In constant dollars, the cost of college from 1970 to 2007 has more than doubled.

The programs mentioned in these reports serve to correct what may be an over-emphasis on college. Along with similar forms of technical training, these programs are attractive for the reason that they both fill a void in the workforce and provide young workers with a purposeful career. A recent article in The Atlantic points out how, in many cases, college eduction is no longer the best predictor of an employee’s effectiveness. With more and better-analyzed data on people’s skills, a significant number of companies are looking “towards pools of candidates who didn’t attend college–for tech jobs, for high-end sales positions, for some managerial roles.” The upside is that attending college is only one option among many.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed college and have no regrets about attending. But I’m also aware of its limitations. Based on how things stand now, this country doesn’t need–nor is willing to pay for–more swishy liberal arts types (myself included) who sit in small rooms all day and produce big ideas. I’m not sure what that means for our future, and I’d be happy to hear thoughts on that, but for the present it stands to reason that we’ll all be better off with more people having the skills to move this country forward.

I hope these programs prove popular. They could be key to the development of the next generation.

[Update 2/26/14: For a good overview of these types of educational programs that seek to fill a need in the job market, see The School That Will Get You a Job in the Feb. 24, 2014 issue of Time Magazine.]



  1. SALT

    Great article and all valid points. In Australia, having a skill from plumbing to electrician to other building techniques is the six-figure salary these days. Having taught at my former uni in the 90s and recently for half a decade, I think college or university is not just about getting a degree though. It is to immerse yourself in a completely different setting to where you grew up. It is to meet people from all walks of life, learn as much as you can, learn from older people, younger, people with backgrounds and thinking different to your own. It’s also about team skills, adapting to different people from your own family and social group, even learning to try to plan your weeks and self-motivate. It is also a place where you form new groups of friends and networks which are responsible for fantastical ideas (facebook) and you can actually map them out. There are also, of course, loads of grants, scholarships, internships and exchanges to be had, as well as a support system for transitioning into adult life. And not all good either ! I think going straight into the work force after high school can be limiting unless you come across a job with a great ethos and one which continues to train and educate. Anyways…enough ramble yes ?!!

    • Matthew Taylor

      Thanks for the comment Salt.
      I love your characterization of college (or university) life. That was indeed my experience. I learned as much socially as I did academically.
      But then the question is: What next? You can be a perpetual student or make a career out of academics. But I think college should be for more than just creating more professors. You should be learning something that provides value in other careers. I spent three years after graduation serving food and drinks. I don’t think I was putting my college education to good use doing that. In fact, when I interviewed at the company where I now work, it was my first “real” job after college, and the hiring manager pointed out that I’d done no office work before. It wasn’t by choice! But it could have sunk my career.
      I got a liberal arts education, because my parents told my you can do anything with that. Or nothing, as it turns out. Most of my friends from school went on to careers in sales or tech industries, neither of which are my strengths. Now I have children who will be facing higher education choices in a few years. What do I tell them? Having guaranteed employment has its appeal.

      • SALT

        Oh that’s worthy of another blog post – the liberal arts degree. I first applied for what we call Bachelor of Arts (same thing)…and on the day I got my high school results realised I didn’t want to do another three years of high school. Meaning, gaining no real skill in anything. I did start that degree and quickly postponed so I could apply for another degree ~ journalism. It was too late to apply so I worked and travelled for a year before applying for the following year’s intake. Best choice I’ve ever made. I wish I had studied something which earned a heckofalotmoremoney but I’m not great with gore (medicine), or people’s teeth, or IT or numbers. I think with the future generations, they absolutely MUST study for all the reasons we experienced but to also get a little technical. Try to study something which earns them an actual skill, area of expertise, definitive understanding of an industry. So, to study economics, law, finance, counselling, health care etc is at least an area of expertise. It’s extremely tough for the future generations. Industries are collapsing. In my home state we are losing GMH which is one of the foundations of one sector of the city. I have long heard healthcare and elderly care is the growth area for the future, along with IT development, finance (as always) and law (everyone suing each other forever) … but I would also predict some old skills coming back. Herbal healing might be one ~ relearning the intricate art of herbal medicine lost in the mainstream for a decade. Writing ~ hand writing, becoming important again for whatever reason. Growing food ~ like learning how to grow everything we need to eat. And of course, cleaning up the world. Notice how much I ramble !!

  2. Matthew Taylor

    I just came across this today (yes, in Cosmo…don’t ask):
    Like many who came before and after me, I thought that there was “a way people do these things.” I would get my diploma and then an entry-level position in a field that would lead me down a particular path. My role models were doctors, teachers, lawyers, architects, nurses and businessmen. They got degrees, then jobs, and they worked at those jobs until they retired. They were handed gold watches and fancy plaques representing decades of service.
    So I’m not alone in this. Read more here:

  3. Leave the Cannoli, Take the Knife (Laura)

    I do think we need some folks who just put ideas of any kind out into the world – philosophers and thinkers. On the other hand, back in the 70s my brother in law dropped out after one semester of college to start his own software company. He is now a multimillionaire/oligarch. I think if he had stayed in college he would have been just as successful, but it would have taken him longer to reach his goals. And as someone with a teen in a local public high school, I can add that the school appears to me to be a diploma factory. The vast majority of the teachers are phoning it in, the administrators push the kids out of arts and humanities into courses like “Tech Ed” and “Marketing”, but tell the parents that if they stick with arts, languages and music and also get through Calculus successfully, they are “practically guaranteed” a spot in one of Virginia’s excellent state universities. Another trend I have observed is that state universities are favoring foreign and out of state students over in-state because they pay double the tuition of residents (observed in VA, CA, WA, but I’m sure there are more). Mo’ out of staters, Mo’ money. I plan to encourage my kid to consider taking a year off between high school and college, maybe travel and/or work, and figure out what exactly they want to do. Unless a high school grad has a specific career mind in path -of any kind, including being a history teacher or author- I see the liberal arts bachelor’s at this point as a waste of time and money. Going back to my brother in law, he always loved reading, and so he is fairly well read. My bachelor’s degree – in Foreign Languages, was useless from the day I got it. As for myself, I am an auto-didact for my new career choice in culinary because I can’t afford culinary school. Oh yes, even “trade schools” have gotten ridiculously pricey.

    • Matthew Taylor

      Your point about a liberal arts bachelor being a waste of money is interesting. My parents argued that it was a stepping stone to your career, but they were dispensing advice from their generation, not mine. Also, I’ve read several published pieces bemoaning the demise of the humanities, including this one, but their arguments don’t ring true to my experience. I’ve found that if you can’t bring measurable value to the company’s bottom line–and fluffy majors don’t do that, trust me–then you won’t get the interview, let alone the job.
      I like your story about your brother-in-law. I think everyone knows somebody like that, and wonder to ourselves why we didn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t do that too. My fleeting brush with future greatness is discussed in this post.
      I took a year off between high school and college, so I feel strongly that that is worth doing. It was a hugely educational and memorable year for me, as much so as college, if not more so in many ways. I worked for a roofing company and a printing company, rubbing elbows with folks I otherwise would never have met.
      My oldest is in ninth grade, and I dread the college process as it looms on the horizon.
      Thanks as always for your comments.

  4. Matthew Taylor

    While I’m at it, consider this study from the Pew Research Center.
    Notice that at the top of the list of jobs that “contribute to society” is the military. Yes, teachers and doctors are there too, but engineers rank above artists, journalists, and lawyers.
    If public esteem is a consideration when looking for a future career (and arguably, it is), then you can skip college and go straight to the top of the list by joining the Army. I’m not saying I agree with this, just that it’s out there.

    • Leave the Cannoli, Take the Knife

      We are also dreading the looming high school to college (or not) process – 9th grade here too. Of course Pew would say that to contribute you should join the military. They want as many young people as possible to join. Except for the ones they don’t want – they can go work at Walmart or Dollar General. My father and father in law were both engineers, though of completely different stripes. My dad worked on the earliest computer systems – back when they filled whole rooms. He worked on computer systems until about 6 years ago (retired). My FiL was a radar engineer who became a satellite engineer. He worked on spy satellites and other space missions. Both had Bachelors degrees, FiL served in the Navy. Neither one had an engineering degree per se and yet they had really decent long-term careers. I don’t believe that could happen now, I think you’d have to either go for an engineering Masters or join the military (so maybe there is an underlying truth to the Pew study).

      I read the Huffington article. I found it to be slightly whiny. I mean, I understand the need for humanities, but I agree with you. A Bachelors in Art History or Comparative Lit or Philosophy is NOT going to get you a “grown up” job. I waitressed and temped for years and years. Had I known I would spend more than a decade or 2 doing that, I think I would have dropped out and then perhaps picked it back up at the time I decided to become a teacher (got my Masters in Ed 6 months after I decided I Never wanted to teach, mostly because all I had to do was tidy up my thesis and hand it in), or when I decided to become a speech pathologist (second Masters-very expensive, took nearly 4 years, but at least it did get me the job I thought it would when I started).

      Sorry to be so wordy. To sum up, yes each Masters degree got me the job I studied for. I had to make up a lot of pre-reqs for both, because my stupid Languages Bachelors had very little substance to it. Had I known what exactly I wanted to do when I was a college freshman (btw, I was all of 16 when I got to college, in retrospect waaaay to young to know what I wanted), it would have made sense to purse a course of study to lead me where I wanted to end up. Maybe with some humanities and arts electives mixed in for full rounding out. As it turned out, my minor in Communications ended up being the slightly more useful thing. My first career out of college was, briefly, as a radio-audio engineer. I dropped out of the field when I realized I was making all of $125 a week for 40 hours a week of graveyard shift work. Good speech therapists can make that in a couple of hours … too bad I burned out on that career….

      • Matthew Taylor

        Thanks for sharing all of this. It validates my feeling that “getting a job” is so much more complicated than what the career office at college would have one believe.
        BTW, I recently dropped out of a graduate program (the economics class I mention in the post being part of that) because I just didn’t see that it was going to lead me where I wanted to be. It was a hard choice to make. So I’m pouring what I learned into this blog. Who know what’ll come of that.

  5. Leave the Cannoli, Take the Knife

    Last thought: Perhaps it is time to revisit the idea of Guilds. Guilds can be both pro-education and pro-labor, if you think about it.

    • Matthew Taylor

      I like the idea. I’d join a Guild.
      Something I try to keep in mind is that if you rewind the clock into the not too far past, the job choices for most men (I’ll keep it to men for the sake of simplicity) were limited. You either did what your father did, or your entered a handful of respected vocations, such as the priesthood, academics, or the military. Today, it’s “do whatever you want.” And what, exactly, does that mean?
      I’m still trying to figure it out.
      Thanks again for your comments.

  6. lauratyley

    This was a great read. I choose against uni and I am currently studying a Digital Marketing Apprenticeship in the UK. Schools in England are rubbish at giving alternative options to students who are having to decide between uni or work and they make you feel college/university are the only options. I’ve started a blog to give people in that tricky stage of there life some advice.

  7. Entrepreneur by Nurture

    I left school as soon as I could, because it was so booooring. I was a bright teenager, and school didn’t give me the challenges I needed. So I got my first full time permanent job when I was 15, as a typist in a typing pool. I’ve moved from job to job quite happily, and generally found work experience counts for more than a qualification. EXCEPT I can’t apply for any position that has a tertiary qualification as a prerequisite.
    Now I’m in my late 30s, my life circumstances made it possible to finally get around to obtaining a university degree. Doing it now means that I’ve chosen courses that add to my knowledge base, make me more employable when finish, and having context from my work experience means the theory makes total sense. But I find it really interesting that nearly all of the young adult students I’ve spoken to have no idea what they will do when they graduate. Some have said they chose a particular degree major, and after three years study now realise they don’t like that area of work!!??
    So would I recommend my little boys go straight to university from high school? No. I’d rather they spend some time working, or consider the trades as a career, get into coding. Further education is a huge investment of time and money, and can be valuable if you know what you want to achieve out of it.
    On another note, I believe the days of being employed by one company for your lifetime are long gone. It’s about building a toolbox of transferable skills, achieving goals with one company, before moving on to another (and perhaps returning to the first company at an appropriate time in your career).

    • Matthew Taylor

      Thanks for sharing this.
      I think I said before in a comment that I took a year off between high school and college. When I announced this to my parents, they responded with concern that I’d fritter away my life and amount to nothing. They insisted that I consult with my school principle on the advisability of this and to choose my college but defer my application.
      I’m glad I took the year off because it was a valuable experience, but I don’t know what I’d have done if I discovered some grand new direction in my life. As it was, I went to college still being quite unsure of what I wanted my life to be.

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