College Ain’t for Everyone

Is college worthwhile?

According to the New York Times, only half of those who started college in the fall of 2006 will have a degree in six years’ time. That’s a lot of tuition with no degrees to show for it. Furthermore, “of the 30 jobs projected to grow at the fastest rate over the next decade in the United States, only seven typically require a bachelor’s degree.”

Budget cuts at state universities around the country have made this issue more salient than ever. And the movement to create alternative vocational pathways is growing. Here’s a thought-provoking passage from the Times piece:

Among the top 10 growing job categories, two require college degrees: accounting (a bachelor’s) and postsecondary teachers (a doctorate). But this growth is expected to be dwarfed by the need for registered nurses, home health aides, customer service representatives and store clerks. None of those jobs require a bachelor’s degree.

Professor Vedder likes to ask why 15 percent of mail carriers have bachelor’s degrees, according to a 1999 federal study.

“Some of them could have bought a house for what they spent on their education,” he said.

There are non-vocational benefits to education, of course: things like learning to better appreciate literature and art, or wrestling with great philosophical questions. But these days most universities are so focused on job training that students pass through with minimal exposure to the broad liberal-arts tradition.

For the majority of jobs out there, a six-month stint at a career school and a few trips to the local library could probably produce a student as well-trained and as highly cultured as your average “Any State U” graduate — and at a fraction of the cost to them and to the state.

Inflexible adherance to the four-year model does not fit the needs of many students or the companies that hire them. Perhaps we should develop a system of one- or two-year vocationally focused programs. Ultimately, we need to provide students with a greater variety of educational choices, so that the costs of education are more proportionate to its benefits — whether one wants to be a doctor, or a mail carrier.

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