When Giving It the Old College Try Fails

AP Images/Jae C. Hong

Jesse Bonds graduated from high school in 2002 in Clinton, Arkansas, a town of 2,600 people on the southern edge of the Ozarks. He tried college for half a semester, but found the computer-programming courses he enrolled in too advanced. After that, he worked for the state’s power utility for about six months building substations, but his crew was laid off once the work was complete. He was looking for a new career when he was hired as an electrician at a new hospital being built in 2003, and when the work was done he realized he wanted to continue working as an electrician. He decided to enroll in ITT Technical Institute to get a two-year degree in electronics engineering. “I saw all the commercials and stuff,” he says. “And I got into the admissions office and they’re like, ‘Oh you scored the highest of anybody that’s come through here on this test in the last couple of years. You’ll be perfect for this program.’” In retrospect, Bonds realizes they were doing a hard sell on the program, but at the time he decided it was a chance to go back to college and make it on his own. “That turned out to be a disaster.”

When Jesse graduated, he had $47,000 in loans he has struggled to repay. Worse than the amount of debt, however, is the fact that he might have been able to work as an electrician without getting a degree and going into debt at all. “I was placed in a job that was making like $10 an hour. It’s like, construction that nobody else has a degree in, and guys were like, ‘You had to go to school for this? We never went to school.’”

The fact that Jesse got an associate’s degree none of his older colleagues have is a new and growing phenomenon. Some electricians are earning even more than an associate’s degree before they get a job. In 2007, 21 percent of job postings for electronics engineering technicians—a broad category that encompasses electricians who work on consumer goods like security alarms and bigger electronics systems like those on planes, all of which Jesse did—asked for a bachelor’s degree. In 2012, after the Great Recession had officially ended, 29 percent of them did. The escalation will likely continue. Those budding electricians with bachelor’s degrees are going to start winning out on jobs over their competitors with two-year degrees, who in turn are already starting to beat men and women who want to be electricians but have only finished high school. It’s called “up-credentialing,” and it’s driven by many different forces—a labor market that needs highly skilled workers, a dearth of jobs for college graduates, and the decline of union-sponsored apprenticeships. One overarching cause, however, is the premium Americans now place on going to college.

Today, almost two-thirds of the jobs created in the economy require a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree, or some other post-secondary training. A seemingly perfect ratio—two-thirds of high-school graduates—enroll in college, both in two- and four-year institutions. But about 46 percent of them fail to finish within six years. The United States has the highest college-dropout rate of any industrialized country. Students are now heading to colleges around the country, and there's no reason to think this year will be any different. If a college education is now the gateway to a middle-class job, and if we expect every student to aim for it, one big unanswered question remains: What happens to those who fail, and is there a better way to prepare them for the job market?

In the 1970s, the numbers were the reverse: Almost three-fourths of the jobs available to Americans required only a high-school education or less. Those workers also made up a majority of the middle class. This is partly because of a strong manufacturing sector, which didn’t require specialized skills prior to employment. High union density—membership in labor organizations peaked in the 1950s at 35 percent—meant that employers could rely on unions to train workers in any specialties required. Employers benefitted from the strong American public education system and the fact that the country’s population was huge compared to that of other industrialized countries. Training for some jobs—electrician, carpenter, secretary—was provided on the job or with a brief preparatory course. Mid-century America was today’s China: Its size and infrastructure helped it outcompete every other country. “We were paying high school-educated workers very high wages,” says Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “That was not going to stand. The world was sitting there waiting to take a bite out of us, and they did.”

With the 1973 recession in the Western world, other countries began competing with the United States in manufacturing. Unemployment peaked at 9 percent in 1975. The country responded by electing Ronald Reagan in 1980, who among many other fundamental policy changes asked his secretary of Education, T.H. Bell, to found a commission to investigate the state of American education. Until then, high schools had been geared toward preparing students for adulthood and the job market. Few students were college-bound. Bell’s commission released a report in 1983 called, “A Nation at Risk,” detailing how this system had to be changed to better prepare students for college and send them there.

“A Nation at Risk” presented some valid criticisms of American public education. Many high schools tracked students who weren’t performing well into vocational education, which was uneven in quality. Minority students were more likely to be sent to what was seen as the substandard vocational track rather than a college-prep one. The report reoriented American high schools. Since people with bachelor’s degrees still earn about $1 million more than high school graduates over their lifetimes, sending every student to college seemed like a sound workforce policy.

Vocational education has almost disappeared in the years since. “There’s been a rise of an education-policy elite that argues things like you need the same skills for college and careers,” says Robert Lerman, an expert on education and the workforce for the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based economics think tank, and American University. “I think we bought into the idea that what ‘skill’ means is academic skills, and anything else you need to know you will learn on the job and an employer will teach you what to do. Occupational training leading to expertise is downplayed.” One’s level of education has become synonymous with skill.

This strategy, however, has its downsides. A 2008 study by researchers in Texas on the effects of George W. Bush’s state-level precursor to No Child Left Behind found that the high-stakes testing system caused more low-achieving students to drop out, even though statistical tricks allowed the schools to report higher graduation rates. The data on how many students leave high school is still shaky, but the National Center for Education Statistics shows a steady decline from 12.1 percent in 1990 to 7.4 percent in 2010. Even if graduation rates are higher, however, high-school graduates don’t fare as well as they once did. With a third of them not enrolling in college, and nearly half of those enrolled in college not finishing, a substantial proportion of Americans aren’t getting the training they need to participate in the workforce. By and large, African Americans, Latinos, and poor students are the most likely to drop out at any level.

On the one hand, the idea that every student can and should be able to go to college seems meritocratic and fair. On the other, we don’t have good alternatives for students who can’t make it to higher levels of education. “Our education system’s very un-American,” Carnevale says. “It’s abstract. It’s not hands-on. It has no respect for labor. Think of a pioneer. Why would a pioneer take Algebra II?” Some jobs require skills that could be gained outside of a classroom, but community colleges and for-profit colleges like ITT Tech are the only places where a large number of young workers are exposed to them. The amount the federal government spends on four-year and two-year colleges, $700 billion, is ten times what it spends on all other workforce training programs, like apprenticeships, combined. It’s especially troubling for what economists call middle-skill jobs that require less training than a bachelor’s degree.

The preparation colleges provide is uneven, and many still hold to the ideal that higher education should focus on academic enrichment, not skills training.  College also puts workers into the job market later than if they went to work directly after high school, which means they have to wait before they can earn money. It’s also riskier: Students have to figure out how to achieve what they want and then pay for it on their own, and there’s no guarantee their training will lead to a job.

Pushing every student toward college is partly why so many people are now stuck in low-wage jobs without a ladder into the middle class. Entry-level jobs with on-the-job training or apprenticeships that pay have been replaced with entry-level jobs that require previous training, usually through expensive post-secondary education. Even with financial aid, there are many barriers to getting into and finishing college, ones that are especially difficult for low-income people to overcome. A possible solution is to revive apprenticeship programs by creating incentives for companies or sector-wide organizations to establish them. “We haven’t created nearly enough apprenticeship slots,” Lerman says. “In my opinion, a big part of that is the very weak government leadership in this field and the trivial amount of money that goes to it. Just look at Canada for example—it now has a higher absolute number of people in apprenticeships than we do, and they’re one-tenth of our workforce. So they have proportionally ten times the numbers and they provide support.”

Another way is to re-establish job-training programs at lower levels of education. In European countries like Germany, public-school students are sorted at young ages, 16 or younger, onto a college-bound track or a vocational track. That approach is not likely to work here. “There’s no politician in the world that will support that in the U.S. because it’s tracking,” Carnevale says. “It’s perceived as tracking by race and class.” Yet the past two decades have shown that middle- and upper-class students are still the most likely to achieve success in the system we have now, and that the higher-education system still discriminates against racial and ethnic minorities. “One of our basic strengths and one of our basic weaknesses is we cannot deal with the fact that by the time a kid is in eighth grade, usually for reasons that are not their fault, they’re not going to college, and they’re not going to graduate,” he says.

In 2011, Robert Schwartz, a researcher at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, released a report called “Pathways to Prosperity.” Schwartz outlined how students had only one real option for achieving success, and argued that a better way to help students get into middle-skill jobs would be to create a rejuvenated career- and technical-education high-school system that would prepare students for college and middle-skill careers at the same time. “The American system for preparing young people to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults is clearly badly broken,” Schwartz wrote in the report.

It’s a path Jesse Bonds, the Arkansas electrician, might have benefitted from. In another era, or in another city, he might have been able to get into his profession without paying for an associate’s degree. “I wound up being poorer coming out of college than I was going in, and it’s stayed that way ever since I graduated in 2006,” he says. “If I wouldn’t have gone, if I had just stayed being an electrician, I’d be a lot better off and have no debt.”

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