Education Opinion

Buyer’s Remorse About College

By Walt Gardner — June 09, 2017 3 min read
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The nation’s obsession with college for all is beginning to show cracks (“The Diminishing Returns of a College Degree, The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 4). A new Gallup survey of 90,000 people between June 2016 and March 2017 found that more than half would change at least one decision about their education if given the chance.

Disaffection was most pronounced among liberal-arts majors, with fewer misgivings among those who studied a trade or attended graduate school. Despite this notable difference, the survey more fundamentally revealed that the widely publicized benefits of a four-year college degree are increasingly being viewed more skeptically, as student loan debt sits at an all-time high of $1.3 trillion and many college graduates find themselves underemployed. According to the Economic Policy Institute, one in eight college graduates fall into that category. The rate is much higher than it was before the last recession.

Moreover, the premium attached to a bachelor’s degree over a high school diploma is no longer growing as it did in the past. Census data show that the average annual earnings differential fell from $32,000 in 2000 to $29,867 in 2015. Whatever difference still exists depends largely on the school and the major.

In contrast, those with a trade from any accredited institution command steady, solid wages. For example, welders earn salaries in the high five and low six figures, with the necessary knowledge and skills obtainable in community colleges and in high-school apprenticeship programs. Free of debt and in high demand, they like their jobs and are good at them. Plumbers from apprenticeship programs earn starting salaries of about $80,000 a year, plus health and retirement benefits.

In contrast, wages for college-educated workers have only recently shown modest gains, rising 6.6 percent from 2014 to 2016. The average wage for a person with a bachelor’s degree was nearly $32 an hour. Since 2002, that comes out to a rise of 49 cents-an-hour when adjusted for inflation. That helps explain why the number of these sub-baccalaureate credentials is growing faster than the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded. Undergraduate enrollment slid by 1.9 percent last fall to 16.3 million. Those with an associate degree or certificate of specialized training often can make as much - or even more - than those with a traditional four-year degree.

Although the Every Student Succeeds Act aims to prepare all students for college and career, the latter is given short shrift, much to the detriment of students who have neither the aptitude for, nor interest in, a bachelor’s degree. The oft-cited premium attached to a bachelor’s degree has to be adjusted to reflect loan repayment and type of major, particularly in light of the forecast that two million manufacturing jobs will remain vacant over the next decade.

Other countries are more realistic than the U.S. For example, Switzerland, integrates career training and academic education throughout the elementary and secondary grades. Germany, which has the lowest rate of youth unemployment in Europe at just 7.7 percent, requires students to choose a track combining on-the-job training with further learning at a public vocational institution. It’s little wonder that Germany has no problem finding skilled and motivated workers. The opposite is on display in the U.S., where companies complain there is a shortage of highly trained workers that has been exacerbated by restrictionist immigration policies.

The Labor Department recently reported that job openings are near all-time highs, with companies struggling to fill these positions. The shortage is most acute in the skilled trades. Wages for nonmanagerial workers grew a little better than four percent annually.

Reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act has the potential to improve matters across the nation. But vocational education in the U.S. continues to be treated as a stepchild. As long as this attitude persists, students who can become productive members of society will be shortchanged.

In the final analysis, college is merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn. It is not a determinant. That’s a lesson we have still not internalized.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.