College is Overrated

What if high schools prepared students for work instead of more school? Education has evolved immensely over the last century. In 1960, the average American had 8.7 years of schooling and jobs were as easy to find as new shoes, yet by 2010, Americans were spending more than 13 years in school, far exceeding China’s 8.3 years (Lee & Lee, 2016).

As a person who has sat in many classrooms throughout my lifetime, I’m highly aware of the trade-off I’ve made for education versus work. Nearly every time I have finished another year of schooling, I have wondered if I’m there yet — if I’m finally considered “educated.” Could I have specialized in a particular career path earlier to shave a few years off of my schooling and cut down on my student loans?

Yes, I could have. Students in Germany are doing it all the time.

More than half of German students get a vocational education that includes a paid apprenticeship. These Germans are paid to learn. It’s a foreign concept in the U.S. where the average Class of 2016 graduate owed $37,172 upon completing their degree. In aggregate, over 44 million Americans carry a staggering $1.4 trillion in student loan debt. More than 11% of American student borrowers are delinquent or in default.

While I was working a summer internship in Meitingen, Germany, I saw young students completing apprenticeships at the company. Many of them probably had more practical skills than I did, and German youth unemployment is less than half of what it is in the United States.

A happy student learning practical skills. Source: Fabrice Florin.

American students who don’t go to college have, on average, worse financial outcomes than college graduates in the long term, but well-trained vocational graduates are the exceptions when compared to peer groups. Some students receive highly specialized career technical education (CTE) in high school that directly prepares them for jobs, so employers hire them for skilled careers right after graduation. These students have the option to go to college later after earning money and experience.

High school vocational education has the power to place students in higher-paying jobs than many college graduates are getting.

The Chicago Public School District recently announced a program to train K-12 students in computer science as a requirement for graduation. AP computer science test takers have doubled since 2010. More students, teachers, parents, and administrators are recognizing the value of basic coding skills. Tech companies have developed curricula for programming online and in the classroom. MIT has even developed a program to make coding simple and engaging enough for elementary school students.

As experience shows, flexibility in curriculum design enables schools to implement specialized training programs that give students expanded professional opportunities. College shouldn’t be the only path to prosperity, and students across the U.S. are succeeding with lower-cost vocational schools. Students get work experience earlier and they aren’t burdened with excessive, unnecessary student debt.

The federal government should completely exit the business of making student loans. Private banks are fully capable of making these loans. Artificially low interest rates on student loans give schools an excuse to charge more tuition without providing the complementary employment opportunities. In free markets, interest rates reflect the variable risk of universities. Schools that have high job placement rates deserve lower interest rates, and vice versa. Rather than thinking about how to spend more federal money on college tuition, our policymakers should be thinking about how to expand CTE in secondary schools.

CTE doesn’t mean students have to become plumbers. It means that K-12 students learn practical skills that employers value, whether they’re learning bio-manufacturing, finance, coding, medicine, construction, or data science.