For Some, the Costs of College Outweigh the Benefits
There is currently a major national push to increase college attendance and graduation rates. Early in his presidency, Obama set a lofty and oft-quoted goal: America will have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. This focus is in line with the growing consensus that in the 21st century, getting a college education is just as important as earning a high school diploma. U.S. Census data shows that the percentage of students who went on to college within a year of finishing high school climbed from 47% in 1973 to 67% in 2007.
The premium placed on college education comes from the very real advantages that a degree confers on most people. Recent U.S. Census data indicates that the average college grad earns 74% more than someone with only a high school diploma. A study by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation also shows that postsecondary education can lead to higher life satisfaction and civic participation: they found that college graduates are more likely to exercise regularly, volunteer, vote and encourage their own children to go to college. Increasing education attainment rates also has benefits for the entire community. A study by CEOs for Cities found that for every 10% increase in the portion of a city's population that possesses a college degree, wages go up 8% for the entire population.
All this data suggest that college should be a universal goal - who wouldn't want to earn a higher salary and have a chance at greater life satisfaction? It is certainly important to improve college-preparation in our K-12 system so that all students who want to pursue higher education have that opportunity. But what about the students who aren't interested in college? Nothing in this world is truly 'one size fits all,' and for students who just don't thrive in the classroom environment, college may not be the best solution. These students are often referred to as 'the forgotten half,' a phrase coined 22 years ago by social scientists studying at-risk youth, and there's a growing concern among parents, educators and economists that pushing these kids into college against their will does more harm than good.
No matter how you look at it, college is expensive. Even students at lower-cost community colleges often find themselves taking on loans to cover tuition, fees, books and living expenses. For some, the debt is worthwhile - the benefits often outweigh the costs when it comes to career opportunities and that elusive 'life satisfaction.' But college drop-out rates in the U.S. suggest that there's a large population for whom college ends up being a waste of time and money.
National statistics indicate that fewer than 60% of new students graduate from 4-year colleges in six or fewer years, and only one in three 2-year college students earn a degree at all. And just because you don't end up with a degree doesn't mean you don't still have debt. A 2005 study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education showed that over 350,000 students who borrowed money for college in 1995 still didn't have a degree by 2001.
Efforts are being made to reduce college drop-out rates by improving college prep during the K-12 years and more closely tracking students in the K-20 pipeline. With better preparation and a stronger support system, many of these students will be able to stay in school and have access to the opportunities provided by a college education. But there will always be people for whom college just isn't a good fit.
A Working Alternative
Luckily, there's an alternative to college for the 'forgotten half' that doesn't leave them stranded in a world where formal training is required for almost any career. More and more young people are turning to apprenticeship. Programs offer students hands-on training in fields as diverse as healthcare, manufacturing and green technology.
Organizations such as Wisconsin's Youth Apprenticeship Program target at-risk youth who are more interested in a job than college after graduation. The program combines classroom education with paid, on-the-job training. Many of the participants are barely making it through high school when they start the program, but upon completion they end up with high school diplomas and certificates of occupational proficiency. Students who decide they want to pursue post-high school training programs in their new fields can also earn credit towards those programs during their apprenticeship.
Apprenticeships even benefit students who don't go on to pursue a career in the same field. For many students, learning a trade gives them a sense of hard work, reward and accomplishment that they didn't get from high school. The experience prepares them to succeed in the workforce - a 2004 survey of recent graduates from the Wisconsin program showed that nearly nine out of 10 graduates received job offers. Those numbers look especially good to students in the current economy, when even a college degree doesn't guarantee you a job. Many college-bound students are also pursuing vocational training during high school in order to gain a practical fall-back skill.
Apprenticeships are great for employers too. Many students are placed in manufacturing industries, where even with all the recent layoffs and factory closures employers have a hard time replacing retiring employees with skilled laborers. With all of the emphasis on college preparation, practical skills (think shop class) have fallen by the wayside in high school curricula. Apprenticeship programs are creating a greater skilled workforce, which in turn leads to more effective companies and, ideally, a healthier economy.
In spite of the positive impact that apprenticeships have made on many young people's lives, many educators are hesitant to tell some students that it's ok not to pursue a college education. They fear that it's tantamount to saying that it's acceptable to have lower goals for some segments of the population. Historically, low-income and minority students have been underrepresented in higher education. They're less likely than their peers to pursue a 2- or 4-year degree, and those who do enroll are at the greatest risk of dropping out. Educators worry that these students will be disproportionately targeted by any effort to promote college alternatives, when what many of these students really need is even more focused college preparation.
Nevertheless, proponents of apprenticeship programs feel that they should at least be offered to struggling students as an alternative. For some, the apprenticeship experience actually provides college preparation where high school has failed. The same 2004 survey noted above showed that eight out of 10 of graduates from the Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship Program end up going on to either a 4-year college or technical school.
Interested in an apprenticeship? These opportunities are available for everyone, even adults who are well out of high school. Check out the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Apprenticeship website to find registered apprenticeships nationwide. They even offer resources for employers who are interested in hiring apprentices.