Executive Perspective

Economic Reconsideration of the College Track
By Daniel A. Domenech/School Administrator, June 2019

I RECENTLY HAD the opportunity to travel to Warsaw, Poland, where I gave a presentation titled “It’s Just Not About a College Degree” at the Council of Eastern European Schools Association. This is hardly a revolutionary idea to our colleagues abroad where apprenticeship programs have flourished for hundreds of years and where typically, from the 6th grade on, students either enter the “gymnasium,” or academic program, or follow a vocational track.

Those students on the academic track are the ones who in all probability will attend and graduate from a university while the students on the vocational track will learn a skill in an apprenticeship program coupled with schoolwork that will lead to certification and employment in a trade.

Here in the United States we have reinforced a culture that generally makes a four-year college degree the educational goal for all students. It has been an unfulfilled goal given the reality that fewer than 40 percent of our students actually wind up attaining a four-year college degree. But as a superintendent recently stated at a meeting with community college presidents, when he asked a gathering of parents how many wanted their children to earn a four-year college degree, they all raised their hands.

Trades Go Begging
Economic developments in the United States may be forcing us to reconsider whether the four-year goal should be re-evaluated. The cost of a college education has grown significantly and many students have piled up huge debts. There are more than 44 million borrowers who collectively owe $1.5 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S.

Adding to the problem is that many of those graduates are also having difficulty gaining employment. Parents find their college graduate returning home and living with them while they hunt for jobs. At the same time, there is a blue-collar worker shortage and many industries and trades complain they cannot find the skilled laborers they need to fill the jobs they have.

We also are aware that our 21st-century economy has created jobs that did not exist in the past and that many positions that required basic skills are being replaced by modern technology. As a general session speaker at our National Conference on Education in February, Bill Daggett shared with us that many of the jobs that we are preparing our students for will cease to exist in the not-too-distant future.

This combination of factors is what is forcing us to rethink our educational goals.

Broader Knowledge
At the conference of European school leaders, one session participant raised an excellent point, stating a college education is more than just preparation for a career. It is also about the broader knowledge obtained, gaining awareness of great literature, familiarity with the arts, developing communication skills and all the other attributes we tend to associate with an educated individual.

We are confronted with the challenge of considering a goal that provides the relevance and practicality that would lead to gainful employment while exposing the students to the rigors of analytical and cognitive processes that are part of a comprehensive education.

The lack of equity in our educational system presents yet another challenge. Many of our minority and low-income students have been deprived of the opportunity to achieve a four-year degree. To be the first generation to do so in a family is a worthy goal to pursue. A vocational track would be seen as a deterrent. One of the reasons why vocational education in the United Sates is seen negatively is because it was for a time considered to be the dumping ground for many minority and low-income students.

Multiple Pathways
Perhaps the solution is to provide our students with the choice of multiple pathways that in all cases are both rigorous and relevant. No student should be dissuaded from pursuing a four-year college degree. No student should be looked down upon for deciding to pursue a vocational track, certification in a skill, or a youth apprenticeship program. The doors always should be open to continuing education. The would-be carpenter could decide to become an architect. The electrician could become an engineer.

The cultural shift may have little effect in changing the numbers. It may be that the number of students obtaining a four-year degree will continue to be around 40 percent, but the 60 percent without the degree will be better prepared to meet the demands of the 21st-century economy while gainfully employed. 

is AASA executive director. Twitter: @AASADan