The concept of “everyone should go to college” is finally being questioned, which I think is long overdue. For a long time, going to college has been seen as the ticket to the middle class and upward mobility. This theme has been baked into the minds of parents and has been driven by public policy and education for the last 50 years.
When I got out of college in 1964, it was true that college graduates were unique enough to be able to command good jobs in a variety of industries; it did not seem to matter what your degree was. But, alas, things have changed, and the economy is very different from the 1960s. In the new economy, dominated by low pay service jobs, a college degree is often not needed, or leads to low starting wages.
A recent study of college graduates in Oregon shows that about 50% of the degrees were in arts, humanities, behavior, and social science, with an average salary from $35- to $40,000 per year.
The “college is the answer” mantra seems to have backfired. The problem is that most of these graduates had to go into debt to graduate, which will burden them for years to come. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimated in 2011 that the average student loan debt was $23,300, and 10% owe more than $54,000, while 3% owe more than $100,000.
The second big problem is that 50% of college graduates are not aligned with the new service economy. The economy has changed drastically in the last 30 years, but higher education hasn’t changed with it. The U.S. Labor Department says that most jobs (69% in 2010) don’t require a post high school degree.
To get an idea of what the economy is going to offer in the next 10 years, look on the internet for the labor department chart called “Occupations with the largest job growth, 2010 and projected 2020”. This chart gives an idea of the jobs that will be created in this decade. On it you will find registered nurses, teachers, physicians, and accountants. These jobs have good wages, but all of the other jobs average about $33,840 per year. The simple reason is the degrees in nursing, teaching, accounting, or medicine all teach the specific skills that are used in their jobs. It is time to convince parents that the “college for all crusade” is no longer valid, and the new mantra should be “get skills in your education.”
I think a better alternative to the four year humanities and liberal arts degrees is a vocational or two year education to learn applicable skills. Vocational education started out in the 1960s with great promise and a vocational focus. But the idea was sabotaged when community colleges found that it was easier and cheaper to become prep schools for four year colleges, and the emphasis on vocations slowly faded. But interest in vocational education seems to be growing again.
Before I try and make my case as to why vocational training should be supported, I want to address a reaction, or criticism, that I know will come from the supporters of the liberal arts programs. In a letter to the editor in my local paper, the Oregonian, a citizen said, “People who study mathematics, science, history, and literature, and so on, will likely never be directly employed to use the fruits of their studies. Instead, such studies, when pursued in a broad liberal arts curriculum, should give the student the ability to live an informed life, engage in critical thinking, and participate thoughtfully in society as a whole. I believe that the ability for a person to adapt to these changes lies with those who have this broad educational background and not just specific vocational training with an immediate measurable economic value.”
This person’s argument for a good liberal arts education was more applicable to a college education 100 years ago than it is today. It makes sense if your parents can afford to pay for your education, and are not worried about your career. But it doesn’t make very much sense, to me, if you have to borrow a lot of money to get a general degree, and then accept a low paying job and struggle with debt.
But the most practical reason for not getting a general degree is that most of the graduates will get married and have kids. As soon as they become a family unit they will need family wage jobs and benefits, and those jobs require skills. I love liberal arts classes, and have taken more than my share. But the reality of the new economy is that most students will not be able to afford general degrees and to live a comfortable middle class life.
Having made this declaration, and despite the fact that higher education is not changing its curriculums, there is some evidence we are heading in the right education direction. I think that rather than spending the money on a general four year degree, it is more practical to pursue an associate’s degree, vocational training, a trade, specials skills, or a job working with your hands.
Enrollment in Associate’s Degrees
Michigan State University’s annual “Recruiting Trends Report,” released November of 2012, projected four year college degrees to grow 3% in 2012/13. However they also found that employers expect to increase hiring of associate degrees by 31% compared to 5% for bachelor degrees.
Types of Two Year Degrees and Why They are More Cost Effective
There are thousands of four year graduates in history, psychology, sociology, the arts, music, and literature who are employed as waiters, bartenders, baristas, retail clerks, food preparers, truck drivers, cashiers, and personal care aides. On the other hand, associate degree graduates can get skilled jobs such as veterinary technicians, engineering technicians, occupational therapy assistants, paralegals, webmasters, radiological technologists, machinists, firefighters, IT technicians, and auto mechanics, where they learn the skills to get a family wage job. They pay much less for school, incur less debt, finish school two years earlier than a bachelors graduate and start earning money and climbing their career ladder earlier.
Manufacturing Needs Skilled People and They Need Them Now
A recent report by Deloitte LLP Consulting for the Manufacturing Institute, based on a survey of manufacturers, found that as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled per year. At the lower end of skill jobs there is always a shortage of welders, grinders, and machine operators, and most students are simply not interested in these jobs –yet. Even though these lower skilled jobs are going begging, I would like to make the case that what manufacturing really wants are multi-skilled craftsman. Companies say they want more hands-on experience, advanced problem solving skills, advanced trouble shooting skills, and employees that have the skills to participate in innovation and new products. They want generalists who can do a wide variety of jobs in the plant and they need true craftsman more than machine operators.
The only way we will get these skilled employees in manufacturing is for the government to help ramp up the community college programs and to join them with apprenticeships or on the job training sponsored by the employers. These are highly paid jobs in machining, fabricating, assembly, troubleshooting, testing, and field service, to name a few.
What is the Government Doing to Help?
Secretary of Labor, Hilda L. Solis, and Under Secretary of Education, Martha Kantar, announced nearly $500 million in grants to community colleges around the country. The grants support partnerships between community colleges and employers to develop programs that provide pathways to good jobs, including building instructional programs that meet specific industry needs.
“The president knows that building a well-educated workforce is critical to reviving and strengthening the American economy,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “These grants will help community colleges and businesses work together to give students the skills they need to compete for good jobs in growing industries.”
In his state of the union message in January 2013, President Obama proposed $1 billion for 15 manufacturing innovation institutes around the country. These centers are supposed to encourage research and development activities and deploy new innovations for manufacturers in the area.
We live in an age where there is much recognition for students who are going to college to become doctors, lawyers, politicians, presidents, actors, or professional athletes. But there is little or no recognition for people who could be very good as electricians, plumbers, carpenters, machinists, et cetera.
We lack the education and training systems to teach these skills and to help more people get the family wage jobs produced in the new economy. We have an abundance of general four year college graduates who are going to find it hard to get a family wage job and pay back their debt.
I have a couple of suggestions: First, we could make the loans and grants for general degrees more expensive to get because they are higher risk. Second, divert government money now going to universities to vocational programs or classes that emphasize job skills. It is time to reconsider the idea of “college for everybody” in this economy and to evaluate the other options to get kids a family wage job and at least a good grip on the bottom rung of a career ladder.
 Big-Money degrees getting short shrift, Betsy Hammond, The OregonianDec.29,2012
 Value of a degree, Letters to the Editor, the Oregonian, March 1, 2013.*
Mike Collins is the author of "Saving American Manufacturing" and its companion book, the "Growth Planning Handbook for Manufacturers." To learn more about the author or these titles, visit http://www.mpcmgt.com/.