President Obama is committed to making community college as accessible as high school, and he is convinced that doing so will greatly improve America’s economic prospects. Specifically, he is calling for a new federal program that will cover 75 percent of the first two years of community-college tuition for all students who maintain at least a C+ grade-point average. Moreover, under the president’s proposal, Pell grants and other aid that poor students might once have used to cover tuition can instead be used to meet living expenses. Indeed, you could say that the president hopes to make community college even more attractive than high school, as poor high-school students don’t generally receive several thousand dollars for showing up and not flunking out. One wonders how many community-college professors would be willing to hand out Ds and Fs under these circumstances. But I digress.
For now, at least, the president’s proposal is mainly symbolic. Republicans in Congress aren’t about to sign up for a $60 billion spending initiative that many fear will entrench federal control over community colleges. A cynic might suggest that the president’s proposal has more to do with rallying the 2.5 million Americans employed in public higher education, most of whom will no doubt welcome his praise, and with his conviction that the most important barrier to the success of public higher education in America is a lack of funding.
The president has performed the useful service, however, of highlighting a very serious problem, which is that many young Americans are ill prepared for the work force. Given that the president spent much of his adult life in an academic setting, it’s hardly surprising that he sees “college for all” as the cure for underemployment, wage stagnation, and a host of other ills. Yet his emphasis on formal education overlooks the central importance of work experience. Instead of focusing so much attention on community colleges, policymakers, particularly on the right, would do well to think harder about apprenticeships.
For years, Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute has been making the case for expanding apprenticeship training, in which schools partner with employers to offer students a combination of vocational education, formal work-based learning, and paid-employment opportunities. Among other things, Lerman has found that apprenticeship programs increase earnings far more and far more quickly than do community-college programs, while costing substantially less. So what’s not to like?
Consider the problem facing many employers: You’d like to find workers with a set of job-specific skills, but these skills are in short supply. You could hire workers without the skills and then train them, yet there is a risk that, once trained, they might abandon you for some other employer offering a higher wage. That is a risk that few employers are willing to take, especially as many workers, particularly women without children and men, change employers relatively frequently. If employers could share the burden of investing in the human capital of their workers, they’d be far more inclined to take on the risk. This is exactly what apprenticeship programs are meant to bring about. By providing students with vocational education, these programs ensure that they are ready to take part in on-the-job training. Students gain skills while also producing more and more value for their employers over time.
To many Americans, however, the very idea of a vocational track seems inegalitarian, as it suggests that some students are simply not suited to college-level work. Others maintain that apprenticeships are too rigid, as they lock young people into a specific vocational track. Both of these charges are wrongheaded. If anything, apprenticeship programs can do much to redress entrenched inequalities. Most Americans find employment opportunities through their social networks. Success in most entry-level jobs is determined not by one’s ability to master formal coursework, but rather by one’s familiarity with the ways of the workplace. The ability to work independently or to persist in difficult tasks doesn’t come naturally to all young people, yet these so-called non-cognitive skills are absolutely crucial to finding a job and keeping it. Apprenticeship helps level the playing field for students who aren’t socialized into work through their families. This is particularly important in light of family breakdown and the chaotic circumstances in which a growing number of American children are raised. By giving young people an opportunity to master difficult tasks, apprenticeship helps them develop confidence and self-esteem, qualities that can prove beneficial even if the student in question never seeks employment in the field in which he was trained. This is particularly important for young men who find traditional academic environments dull and disempowering.
For all our focus on college for all, the United States still faces an enormous high-school-dropout problem. The share of public-high-school students who earn regular high-school diplomas in the standard four-year window is 80 percent, and 69 and 73 percent among black and Latino students respectively. Some of these students manage to complete high school by staying behind a year or two, and some complete GEDs, but outcomes for this latter group are only slightly less grim than those for high-school dropouts as a whole. Because students from disadvantaged backgrounds face such long odds when it comes to finishing high school and college, many grow disillusioned with formal education, choosing instead to seek low-wage paid employment at the first opportunity. The problem, of course, is that the low-wage work available to high-school dropouts rarely offers a path to middle-class stability. Combining vocational education with paid-employment opportunities might prove attractive to students on the cusp of dropping out. Even students who are at no risk of dropping out might find the prospect of earning as they learn attractive, and structured work experiences might help them form social ties with employers and more-experienced workers that could prove advantageous later in life.
Apprenticeship looks even more attractive when we consider that our colleges and universities are doing an awful job of serving at least half of their students. Those who finish college can, generally speaking, expect to be better off than those with no more than a high-school diploma. Unfortunately, college-completion rates are stagnant, as Andrew P. Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute observes in a recent paper. The share of students who start college but never finish is somewhere between 40 and 45 percent. Those with “some college” tend to earn substantially lower wages than those who earn degrees, which makes their student-loan debt all the more burdensome. There is a decent case that simply giving some of these students more aid would help them finish college, particularly those for whom the need to balance coursework and paid employment is the chief barrier to getting a degree.
But what about the many students who are simply not ready for college-level coursework? In 2012, a study from Complete College America, a nonprofit advocacy group, found that 51.7 percent of first-year students attending two-year colleges were in need of remediation, while among first-year students attending four-year colleges the share needing remediation was 19.9 percent. This wouldn’t be a disaster if colleges did a far better job of serving these students than the high schools that have so clearly failed them, but the evidence from Complete College America suggests that they don’t: It estimates that only 9.5 percent of community-college students who enroll in remedial courses will complete a degree in three years, a share even lower than the already dismal 13.9 percent three-year-completion rate among students with no need for remediation.
Even when students manage to finish community college, they face yet another problem, which is that a large and growing number of graduates are employed in jobs that don’t require a college education. One scholar, Richard Vedder of Ohio University, estimates that 48 percent of employed college graduates are currently in jobs that fall into this category. In a similar vein, Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School, has suggested that employer demand for college-level skills might actually be declining, and that as college graduates have been forced to take jobs that require less education, they’ve been squeezing out the less educated. One obvious explanation for why completion rates are so low is that students fail to see the connection between getting their degree and getting ahead, particularly when going to community college forces them to forgo employment opportunities. Community-college courses that are essentially vocational are an exception, and an instructive one.
In fairness, the Obama administration has proposed increasing the number of apprenticeships. In December, the president announced a new $100 million American Apprenticeship Grants Competition to encourage employers and local governments to expand their apprenticeship offerings, an amount far smaller than the $60 billion over ten years he hopes to spend on his community-college initiative. He might consider taking the advice of Lerman, who last summer called for shifting resources from community colleges to apprenticeship programs. And if not, one of the conservatives looking to succeed him ought to pick up the baton.