The United States puts a heavy emphasis on a college degree as the path to economic and social success, and thus it\’s a familiar pledge of politicians that a higher share of the population will attend college. For example, in a speech to Congress on February 24, 2009, President Obama
set a goal that \”by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.\”
But this emphasis on college has two difficulties: 1) as a society, we don\’t actually mean it; and 2) it probably isn\’t an appropriate goal, anyway. After all, if we really supported a widespread expansion of college education, we would do considerably more than pump up the loans available to students. Instead, we would be figuring out how current colleges can expand their enrollments, and starting a new wave of colleges and universities–and figuring out how to keep these options affordable to students. Instead, the U.S. has lost its lead as the country in the world with the highest proportion of college graduates.
Moreover, a four-year college degree just isn\’t going to be right for everyone. Think about those students who managed to finish a high school degree, but were in the bottom third or bottom quarter of the class. For many of these students, their interactions with the educational system have not been happy ones, and the notion that their life plan should start off with yet another four years of education is likely to be met with hard-earned dislike and disbelief.
So what\’s the alternative for these students, in a U.S. economy that places considerable value on skilled labor. Betty Joyce Nash offers one angle on these issues in in \”Journey to Work: European Model Combines Education with Vocation in the Fourth Quarter issue of Region Focus, which is published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. She writes:
\”In the United States, vocational education has been disparaged by some as a place for students perceived as unwilling or unable. The United States still largely champions college as the route to higher lifetime wages and the flexibility to retool skills in times of economic change. Yet just 58 percent of the 53 percent of college-goers in 2004 who started at four-year institutions finished within six years. Moreover, 25 percent of those who enter two-year community colleges don’t finish. Only about 28 percent of U.S. adults over age 25 actually have a bachelor’s. What about the rest? What’s their path to the workplace? It may be unrealistic to expect everyone to finish college, but most students will need more than a high school education as jobs become more complex.\”
Nash focuses her discussion on apprenticeships and vocational education, and as is common in these kinds of arguments, she focuses some attention on practices in Germany and Switzerland. Thus:
\”Germany and Switzerland educate roughly 53 percent and 66 percent of students, respectively, in a system that combines apprenticeships with classroom education — the dual system. This approach brings young people into the labor force more quickly and easily. Unemployment for those in
Switzerland between the ages of 15 and 24 in 2011 was 7.7 percent; in Germany, 8.5 percent. In the United States that year, the rate was 17.3 percent, down from 18.4 percent the previous year. (A 10 percent higher rate of participation in vocational education in selected Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development countries led to a 2 percent lower youth unemployment rate in 2011, according to economist Eric Hanushek of Stanford University.)\”
Here\’s a bit more detail on Switzerland and on Germany:
\”At ages 15 to 16, in Switzerland, about two-thirds of every cohort enter apprenticeships, [Stefan C.] Wolter notes. Apprentices in fields from health care to hairdressing to engineering attend vocational school at least one day a week for general education and theoretical grounding for roughly three years. On other days, they apprentice under the supervision of a seasoned employee. What makes the system work so well is firm participation, which is relatively strong. “If you exclude the one-person companies and the businesses that cannot train, about 40 percent of companies that could train do train,” Wolter says. …\”
\”In Germany, about 25 percent of students go to university, and apprenticeships employ another 53 percent. At 16, they sign on for a three-year stint in one of 350 occupations. Another 15 percent may attend vocational schools. Those who are less qualified take a full-time vocational course or temporary job until they land an apprenticeship. About one-quarter of German employers participate. …\”
Other western European countries use variations of the Swiss and German model. Belgium, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands train most vocational students in school programs, while Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark have large school-and-work programs. The United States is an outlier: By international standards and official definitions, it has virtually no vocational education and training program.\”
From a U.S. perspective, it\’s hard to think clearly about how this kind of widespread use of apprenticeships and vocational school would even work. Half or two-thirds of 16 year-old students involved in paid internships? A quarter or a third of all employers providing a large number of such internships as part of their regular business model? Internships across a wide array of professions, both blue- and white-collar? My American mind boggles. But given that a four-year college degree is demonstrably not a good fit for many young Americans, it\’s past time to take some of the alternatives more seriously.
I\’ve posted from time to time about the merits of apprenticeships and various alternative credentials.
For examples, see this post from October 18, 2011, on \”Apprenticeships for the U.S. Economy, \”
this post from last November 3, 2011 on \”Recognizing Non-formal and Informal Learning,\” and th is post from January 16, 2012 on \”Certificate Programs for Labor Market Skills.\”