In the debate over the value of a bachelor’s degree, the usual argument is that its holders earn on average about $1 million more over their lifetime than those with only a high school diploma. But like all generalizations, the truth is far more nuanced, as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal made clear on consecutive days. What they reported warrants further examination.
“Though it’s no guarantee, a B.A. or some kind of technical training is at least a prerequisite for a decent salary. It’s hard to see any great future for high-school dropouts or high-school graduates with no technical skills” (“The Dwindling Power of a College Degree, The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 27). But notice the words “with no technical skills.”
I stress this phrase because the assumption is that college graduates possess wherewithal lacking in high school graduates. But this is not necessarily the case. In fact, if vocational education in high school were given the respect it deserves, I believe that students enrolled in such programs would be in a far better position to get a well paying and satisfying job than college graduates who have majored in the liberal arts. Instead, the Obama administration persists in urging college for almost everyone. This strategy does a terrible disservice to the thousands of students who have no interest in pursuing a four-year college degree.
That’s because even though the unemployment rate currently is 9 percent there are many jobs for those who possess specialized skills. These include welders, machinists and drilling-rig workers (“Help Wanted: In Unexpected Twist, Some Skilled Jobs Go Begging,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 26). And let’s not forget plumbers, electricians and auto mechanics. None of these positions requires a bachelor’s degree, but they all require expertise that can be acquired through vocational courses in high school or in community college. Students who choose to follow either of these routes are virtually assured of a steady career that pays a traditional pension. Moreover, they are not saddled with the heavy debt that comes from earning a bachelor’s degree. Bill Frezza, a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, sees a “coming tsunami of student loan defaults” that will push the federal agency guaranteeing such loans into bankruptcy (“The Root Cause of Market Failure in Higher Education,” Real Clear Markets, Nov. 28).
We can argue all we want about the purpose of tertiary education. But conditions have dramatically changed. Up until the 1970s, less than 11 percent of the adult population graduated from college. Today, almost a third of the adult population in this country has a college degree, and an even higher percentage earned their degree from non-elite schools. As a result, a bachelor’s degree by itself no longer indicates intelligence and capability.
For those who are undecided about their future or want a broad background, there is nothing that compares with a liberal arts education. But remember that education is not the same as training. While they may overlap, they have different purposes. The former is concerned with concepts, while the latter is concerned with techniques. As long as the distinction is clearly understood, there will be far less disappointment among young people than there is now.
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.