Education

The Corner

College Versus Apprenticeships

Why don’t more young Americans go for apprenticeships as opposed to enrolling in college? That question becomes more and more important as a) huge numbers of college “educated” students struggle to repay their student loans, b) many college grads end up working in entry-level jobs they could have gotten right out of high school (or even while still in high school), and c) employers are struggling to find capable workers for many skilled trades jobs that pay well.

In today’s Martin Center article, Anthony Hennen looks into that question. It isn’t an ideological issue, Hennen writes: “Both the political left and right favor apprenticeships as a way to educate and train America’s youth for future success while also meeting the demands of the economy.”

The main problem seems to be one of perception. Most of us seem to have accepted the notion that it’s far better to have a college degree to your name than not. It’s something of a stigma to admit that you don’t have college credentials. Parents push their children toward college. So do high-school guidance counselors — even students who perform poorly are encouraged to try for college instead of looking for apprenticeships or vocational training.

But for people who don’t care about the stigma, apprenticeships have a lot of offer in comparison with college. Hennen writes, “For many young people, apprenticeships should be especially attractive because they offer an immediate paycheck for work and also teach skills in both hands-on and classroom settings. The average apprenticeship period tends to be about four years, according to Department of Labor statistics, and workers usually become full employees upon program completion.” That looks much better than four or more years to get a BA, then perhaps settling for a mundane job.

To that, I’ll add this point: For a great many young people, education is boring. They don’t like sitting in classes, reading books, or writing papers. They look for courses that are somewhat fun and easy, and are happy when classes are called off. Most people would be happier learning and then doing something useful, a point that Bryan Caplan stresses in his new book The Case Against Education, which I will review for the Martin Center soon.

Apprenticeships are growing, and probably will grow faster as more Americans realize that having a BA is not all it has been cracked up to be. Hennen concludes,

With more apprentices ignoring the possible stigma, that could result in workers finding jobs that match their skills and a reduction in student debt — for students and for the taxpayers who subsidize the loans. However, it’s important to treat apprenticeships as one option of many for education and economic training with its own costs and benefits — much like a college degree.

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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