Consider two high school students – one who demonstrates great academic talent and the other who does not. On the one hand, December marks the home stretch of a multi-year effort, intensively supported by his school, to prepare for the perfect college application. For the other, December is just another month on the way to, well, whatever might happen after graduation. The former will probably progress steadily to a baccalaureate; the latter is unlikely to complete university if he enrolls. To whom does our education system owe what?
This second student, to be clear, did nothing wrong. He’s likely made his way through his town’s standard college curriculum, although he neither targets his interests and abilities, nor prepares him for success in the workforce. Looking ahead, he faces a job market in which he may have to work harder than his college counterpart for lower pay, with fewer options, and slower progression. Yet we are celebrating the first student and spending tax dollars on their education. To the second student, we offer little more than a sympathetic “Sorry”. Our education system has become one of the most regressive institutions in our country.
After graduation from high school, the first student can access more than $ 10,000 per year in public funds to support their college experience. Federal funding for higher education has increased by 133% over the past 30 years; combined with tax breaks, loan subsidies and state-level funding, the annual total exceeds $ 150 billion. This funding will cover not only the true costs of education, but also state-of-the-art gymnasiums, psychiatric and career counseling services, and any social programs that the student life bureaucracy can devise. In the state of Ohio, students living off campus benefit from free fire alarms.
The second graduate probably gets nothing. Annual federal funding for non-college career paths, at the secondary and post-secondary levels, amounts to $ 1 billion. Of course, he will have to buy his own fire alarm.
One explanation for this bizarre state of affairs, in which society invests heavily in those who are heading for economic success while ignoring those who fall behind, is the widespread belief that anyone can be a college graduate. If this were true, the push to the college pipeline might make sense.
But most young Americans don’t even graduate from college. Federal data shows that less than one in five students navigate smoothly between high school, college and career path. The more students who do not complete high school on time, the more who fail to make the transition from high school to college, and the more who drop out of college. Forty years of reform, accompanied by a doubling of expenditure per pupil, have failed to improve this picture. The standardized test results did not budge. SAT scores have gone down. More students are enrolling in college, but the share of 25-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree did not increase from 1995 to 2015, and is barely above the 1975 level.
A second explanation is the widespread belief that a college degree is a necessary and sufficient “ticket to the middle class”. If this were true, even a small chance to escape the supposedly sad fate of inadequate education is better than ever to admit defeat.
But while the median college graduate earns more than the median high school graduate, these workers are not the same person – in fact, they are likely people with very different academic perspectives. Instead, look at the wage distributions for more comparable samples: those with higher incomes for workers with only high school education and those at the bottom among university graduates. The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that high school graduates with above-average earnings (50th to 90th percentile) earn $ 34,000 to $ 70,000 per year. University graduates with below-average earnings (10th to 50th percentile) earn $ 28,000 to $ 58,000.
Pushing people in the first category to go to university and end up in the second category is doing them little service. And remember, that assumes they graduate; people in their position usually won’t. Also, keep in mind that these are the results before they try to create an engaging non-college path that they might prefer and that might prepare them for success.
What could such a route look like? For the roughly $ 100,000 that the public is spending today to lead many students through high school and college, we could instead offer two years of traditional high school, a third year that splits the time between a vocational program. sophisticated and a subsidized internship, two separate years. between subsidized work and employer-sponsored training, and a savings account of $ 25,000, perhaps for future training. Any American could have, by age 20, three years of work experience, a degree in industry, and income in the bank.
To reverse the regressive nature of the system, we should redirect our college grants to funding this new path. The burden of funding a college education remains manageable for those who graduate and use their degrees. They will remain the winners in the economy, even when they repay the loans. The fact that some young Americans are taking on unaffordable debt is not an argument for additional spending on college, but rather a reminder that its value proposition may turn out to be poor.
For student borrowers unlikely to graduate, current grants are primarily successful in attracting them to a substantial investment of time and money that is both risky and unprofitable. If a good alternative existed, they would be well served to take it. Of course, the choice must remain theirs. But to decide wisely whether college is worth it, they really have to face the cost.
People often applaud vocational education in theory, provided it is “for someone else’s children”. These children are most children, and a false promise of academic success does more harm than good. We owe them our attention and the best path we can build – one that brings them as close as possible to the destination their peers in college will reach, and sometimes beyond.
Oren Cass (@oren_cass) is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of “The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America”.
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