Taking the “Class” Out of Higher Education

Skills-based education is a worthy, equal alternative to a college degree

Original image from @mikel_k on Unsplash

Years ago, I had a conversation with my brother that stuck with me forever.

He told me that he did not want to attend college but was worried my parents and I would be ashamed of him.

I asked what he wanted to do. His reply, “Be a carpenter.” In that moment, I could not have been prouder.

At the time, I was working at a ski resort that was clamoring for carpenters and established a carpentry apprenticeship program, which would lead to a license. Three and a half years later, my brother received his Journeyman Carpenter’s Certificate from this program, earning the equivalent of a college degree with no debt and extremely valuable, lifelong skills.

No one in my family felt anything close to shame about his rewarding career choice.

Our culture’s insistence on a baccalaureate degree as the only pathway to success is so entrenched that those who choose to better themselves through skills-based education often feel shame in that decision.

To that I say: shame on cultural elitists who create a class system within higher education.

A college degree is a worthwhile accomplishment that can open many doors for those who pursue that path. I earned a doctorate degree because I wanted to teach; college degrees were the natural next steps to further my career. But before the pandemic, there were seven million unfilled jobs in this country, largely due to a disconnect between classroom learning and the needs of the 21st century workforce.

This skills gap proves that so-called “four-year degrees” alone are insufficient for sustaining a thriving, technologically advanced economy. Plumbers, A/C repairwomen, and IT experts, to name a few, are essential workers. We need hardworking, intelligent people in all sectors of our economy, regardless of how they choose to further their education after high school.

Sadly, too few individuals are given proper information and encouragement to consider these in-demand, viable career options. From elementary school, children are put in a pipeline to a baccalaureate degree. At the same time, college tuition rates and the easy availability of federal loans are feeding a student debt frenzy, where students can reasonably expect to owe a loan balance totaling more than half of their starting salary — if they get a job at all.

Unsurprisingly, this leaves many students and parents wondering, “Is college the best option?” A recent Gallup survey found that support for traditional college degrees was waning, with only 54 percent of parents saying they would prefer that their child obtain a baccalaureate degree.

Some may see this as an existential threat to higher education. I challenge them to see this news as a tipping point that could transform our education system for the better. We have the opportunity to convert this outdated model into something that truly prepares students for the workplace and favors individual paths to success over one-size-fits-all degree programs.

For decades, traditional degree programs have benefitted from their status as the “preferred” route to postsecondary education. No matter the cost, students and families would bend over backwards to pursue a degree at these universities. But as that preferred status begins to break down, schools must actively prove that they are a worthy investment. This will force institutions to address administrative bloat, prove that their students can achieve workplace success, and improve their services to fit students’ educational needs.

This negotiation creates room for students to consider skills-based programs, which could offer a six-figure starting salary with little to no debt. That can transform people’s lives and deserves adequate consideration against the traditional postsecondary pathway.

When I was pursuing my degree, a professor admonished a fellow student for using the phrase “vocational training.” Training, he said, was for animals. Humans receive an education. The way we speak reflects what we value. We must enthusiastically bring skills-based programs into the fold of “higher education” and push back against any institution that refutes that truth.

When we start to question our nation’s approach to higher education, students are better positioned to make the decision that is best for them.

From Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), Republican Leader of the Education and Labor Committee.

From the Desk of Republican Leader Foxx

Thoughts from Education and Labor Committee Republican Leader Virginia Foxx