It’s time to drop the college-for-all crusade

One size doesn’t fit all, as sociologist James Rosenbaum of Northwestern University has argued. The need is to motivate the unmotivated. One way is to forge closer ties between high school and jobs. Yet, vocational education is de-emphasized and disparaged. Apprenticeship programs combining classroom and on-the-job training — programs successful in Europe — are sparse. In 2008, about 480,000 workers were apprentices, or 0.3 percent of the U.S. labor force, reports economist Robert Lerman of American University. Though not for everyone, more apprenticeships could help some students.

The rap against employment-oriented schooling is that it traps the poor and minorities in low-paying, dead-end jobs. Actually, an unrealistic expectation of college often traps them into low-paying, dead-end jobs — or no job. Learning styles differ. “Apprenticeship in other countries does a better job of engaging students,” says Lerman. “We want to diversify the routes to rewarding careers.” Downplaying these programs denies some students the pride and self-confidence of mastering difficult technical skills, while also fostering labor shortages…

The real concern is the quality of graduates at all levels. The fixation on college-going, justified in the early postwar decades, stigmatizes those who don’t go to college and minimizes their needs for more vocational skills. It cheapens the value of a college degree and spawns the delusion that only the degree — not the skills and knowledge behind it — matters. We need to rethink.