We often hear stories about student loan debt topping $1 trillion, college graduates who struggle to find jobs in their chosen careers and the rising price of college.
As college prices have risen — and as the nation suffered through the worst recession since the Great Depression — there has understandably been much focus on whether students will get a good job after graduation. Students want to know whether they will earn enough to pay back loans and make their time spent in college worthwhile.
At the heart of these debates is the question of whether the purpose of a college education is to give young people vocational skills and prepare them for entry into labor markets, or whether the purpose is the Jeffersonian notion of preparing an educated citizenry to serve our country.
The reality, of course, is that we expect education at all levels — both K-12 and postsecondary — to accomplish both of these goals. We want our graduates to have job-relevant skills, and we also want them to be thoughtful, critical thinkers when they go to the polls and participate in our democracy.
One of the strengths of the American system of higher education is that we have more than 7,000 postsecondary institutions offering a wide range of options to the country’s 20 million college students. These include public, private nonprofit and for-profit schools offering associate and bachelor’s degrees in liberal arts disciplines, as well as more career-oriented majors such as business, nursing and journalism.
There are also thousands of institutions that focus primarily on postsecondary credentials, in some cases degrees, but also shorter-duration certificate programs that help students develop specific job skills. Many community and for-profit schools offer certification programs to train people for jobs such as cosmetologists, respiratory technicians and automobile mechanics.
In recent years, we have also seen new types of postsecondary training programs develop — such as computer coding boot camps — that focus on the development of specific job skills and operate outside of the government’s Title IV programs. These have helped to expand even further the range of options available to students.
Politicians and higher education analysts have questioned whether every student completing high school should attend college. In most cases, “college” means a traditional bachelor’s degree. And these analysts are absolutely correct that a four-year bachelor’s program is not necessarily the right choice for all students. Some will be more interested in a vocationally oriented certification program such as those outlined above.
While we have been successful in developing this multifaceted system of post-high school training, there are still some areas in which we could improve as a nation and take lessons from other countries. One example is apprenticeships. We have some vocational fields — such as union construction trades — that have well-developed apprenticeship programs where students develop their job skills while they are still in high school. After graduating from high school, students start working in the trade, earning a wage and beginning the transition from apprentice to master tradesperson.
Outside of these limited areas, however, we have not utilized apprenticeship and strong job training in high schools as extensively as have countries such as Germany, which provides a much tighter linkage between secondary school and preparation for labor market success. While the well-documented decline in manufacturing positions is likely the cause of the disappearance of some apprentice programs, there are still many service jobs that could benefit from better vocational training in high school.
The question is not whether our educational system should focus primarily on developing labor market skills in students or training them instead in critical thinking and “softer skills”; both goals are important. The more important question is how we as a society ensure that all students have the opportunity to pursue whatever kind of educational opportunity that they both desire and for which they have the academic aptitude. This will present a much larger challenge for policymakers into the future than will the need to overhaul the structure of American higher education.