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.
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.]