Over recent decades, parents, grandparents, and high school students have been subject to a barrage of messages suggesting that everyone should go to college. Higher education is the pathway to more money and more status, we’re told.
Few have asked, “Is this path best for all young people, and is it best for our country?” Many young people are not cut out for college, but they have other talents. The vast majority of jobs in this country don’t require a college degree, although many do require additional training.
As a result, there is a huge misappropriation of funding, with far too much going to colleges and far too little going to trade schools, community colleges, and other places where young people can get the post-high school training they need to help them lead productive, successful lives.
The U.S. Census shows that in 2021, a total of 62.2% of the population 25 and older did not have a college degree. Of the 37.8% who have a bachelor’s degree or higher, one-third are underemployed, according to the Federal Reserve. Many of them are in jobs that don’t actually require a college degree.
The fact is that many of the most successful Americans throughout our history didn’t go to college. Some of our greatest presidents – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Harry Truman – never received a higher education. More recently, tech and media giants like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Ted Turner, and cultural giants like Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou, along with countless others, didn’t get degrees and yet went on to achieve great success.
This is not to deny that a college education is necessary for some. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, professors, teachers, and many other professions require a college education. That doesn’t mean that colleges should just be trade schools for those students. They should also offer a strong liberal arts program to help students become more informed citizens and lead more meaningful lives. Many colleges unfortunately are neglecting or even cannibalizing this part of their curriculum.
So, what can we do?
First, let’s face the reality that most jobs in the country don’t require a college degree, and most young people don’t get one. Then let’s change our attitudes. Good tradesmen and other service people deserve as much respect as those in the professions. The country needs good plumbers and good carpenters, for example, unless we are willing to live with leaky pipes and poorly constructed homes. And often, these skilled craftsmen earn better livelihoods and enjoy their work more than those with white-collar jobs.
It may be true that the average college graduate earns more than a non-college graduate over the course of his life. But that isn’t the case when you compare those with a college degree in a job that doesn’t require one against those well-qualified tradespeople who don’t have degrees. And then, when you consider the extraordinarily high cost of college – the lost 4 or 6 years of earnings and the burden of the debt acquired to pay for college – any difference becomes much less significant.
We should stop pushing everyone to go to college. Parents, high school counselors, and others with influence in students’ lives need to realize that this isn’t always the best advice. Then, reminding ourselves that the vast majority of young people get most of their education in the K-12 system, we need to focus on teaching the basics. Teaching good grammar and solid math skills is essential, along with giving students a strong background in civics and history, to prepare high school graduates to be good workers and citizens. Businesses should stop requiring college degrees for those jobs that don’t require one.
Perhaps high schools should offer more vocational classes for students interested in the trades. And high school counselors should let students know about the full array of potential training opportunities in addition to college.
Then let’s strengthen those additional training opportunities. We already have a strong community college network, where young people can get training for many different types of work or as an inexpensive first two years toward a college degree. But there aren’t nearly enough trade schools and virtually no apprenticeships as there are in Germany and other countries. This should be a priority.
In America, we promise everyone “The possibility of living The American Dream,” as James Truslow Adams defined it, in which “life should be better, richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability and achievement.”
As Martin Luther King would say, it’s time to live up to that promise, for everyone. We owe everyone an equal place at the starting line; from there, we can let meritocracy determine the outcomes. That is the American promise. And the place to start is with our educational system, from top to bottom.