Kikaru Kurokawa will not graduate until next year from the Kosen here in Hachioji, an hour west of Tokyo. But a job is already waiting for him. The aspiring chemist, who at 14 was testing for acid rain in mud puddles near his house, will go to work this spring in the
water-quality division of Suntory, a brewing and distilling conglomerate.
Kosen are hybrids of high schools and colleges that serve a small but important slice of the higher-education market, attracting students — often from working-class families — who combine an instinctive passion for building gadgets with above-average aptitudes in science and math.
By fusing classroom rigor with workplace know-how, these colleges fix a failing of high schools and universities in Japan — and in the United States.
It’s called the “skills gap,” and it’s the bitter fruit of educational systems in both countries that aspire to make college accessible for all but that often produce students who, if they do get a degree, focus too narrowly on abstractions while neglecting the hands-on competence necessary for landing jobs that pay middle-class wages.
“In Japan, the mainstream education system is extending childhood and not giving practical training,” said Motohisa Kaneko, director of research at the government’s Center for National University Finance and Management. “Even the basic competence of university graduates in engineering is rather dubious.”
The skills gap that troubles Japan is tormenting the United States. Since 2000, the percentage of U.S. young adults ages 20 to 24 with jobs has fallen from 74 percent to 62 percent, a level not seen since the 1930s, according to a 2011 study by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. It concluded that the “college for all” system that emerged in the United States after World War II is failing the majority of American youths.
By the time they reach their mid-20s, only about 40 percent of Americans earn an associate or bachelor’s degree, census data show.
“We are leaving a lot of kids behind,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “High school in America is about preparing for a college degree that most young people will not get, and in the meantime, these kids are disconnected from anything that is real in the world of work.”
A potential cure for what ails secondary and higher education in the United States and Japan looks a lot like what Kosen colleges have been doing for a half-century: requiring high school-age students to spend time in an actual workplace, integrating abstract subjects such as algebra with the use of cutting-edge machinery, and including local industry in the design of a constantly updated curriculum.