More thoughts on the U.S.’s college problem, from Ryan Harkins, in his latest Comment of the Day on the post, “The Ethics Of Responding To Inconvenient Truths: Colleges Aren’t Working…Now What?“:
Growing up in Casper, WY, the expectation among my peers was that after graduating high school, you either went to college our you stayed in your home community to work low-wage, service industry jobs. On very rare occasions, there was mention of going to WyoTech, if you really liked working on cars and could pay the tuition, which was quite a bit more than tuition at the University of Wyoming. I can’t say I ever heard anything promoted at my high school about apprenticeships in a craft, or any other kind of traditional skilled labor.
At the University of Wyoming, a great many people I met, a portion of which never made it past their freshman year, only went to college because it was expected, not because it was what they wanted to do or were interested in. I can understand going to college when you are searching for what you want to do with your life, and I think most people going to college either know what they want to do or want to find what they want to do at college. But for so many people that I saw, a trade school or an apprenticeship would have been worlds of improvement over drifting through campus, failing classes, drinking, partying, and essentially wasting thousands of dollars to go nowhere.
The point was driven home as I graduated and entered into graduate school. I had the opportunity to watch friends who were a couple of years behind me finish their degrees, and then find they couldn’t find work, because their degrees weren’t all that marketable. They struggled with a sense of betrayal, because all their lives they had been told that the path to success was to go to college, get a degree, and then get a good job because of that degree. And these realizations were hitting home before the 2008 recession, so it wasn’t as though it was a difficult economy in which to find work.
Worse were the friends who drifted in and out of college, spending time building up money so they could get readmitted, take a few course, perhaps fail a few, and then leave so they could go back to work to earn a little more money. The frustrating aspect was, they were talented enough in other areas that they could have built up a good career in a more blue-collar type job, but were prevented from doing so by disapproving family members.
At the refinery where I work, there are people who earn a substantial amount of money by entering Operations or Maintenance right out of high school. For some of our engineers who were raised locally and went to college, there has been some angst about the fact that people who graduated from high school at the same time were making almost twice as much money as an engineer because they didn’t spend four years earning a degree.
What frustrates me most about our system and about the way we have, especially under the Obama Administration, pushed more and more people towards college, is that college is treated like this magical pill that one takes and problems suddenly go away. It is an arrogance of academia. A job is only worthwhile if you have to be highly educated. Yet we need electricians and plumbers and mechanics, and you don’t need four years at a university to learn those trades. The strongest argument I’ve heard about the need to go to college is to expand one’s horizons, to be exposed to greater diversity, to become a well-rounded individual. From my personal experience with the “cultural context courses” we were forced to take to earn our degrees, it seems far more geared toward ensuring everyone is indoctrinated with the proper groupthink.