Pursuing a four-year bachelor’s degree after high school is the cultural norm in the United States, and a decades-long “college for all” campaign has made it a national issue. As a result, most jobs, even those not necessarily requiring an advanced degree, still have a large proportion of four-year degree holders. As reported by The New York Times, “Nearly 40 percent of American workers hold a bachelor’s degree. College graduates are found in virtually every profession: 15 percent of mail carriers have a four-year degree, as do one in five clerical and sales workers and 83,000 bartenders.” While attending a four-year college is the best route for many students, some aren’t as prepared financially, socially or academically for this particular transition to adulthood. Several factors, including changes in our high school curriculums and a lack of post-high school career training, are leaving these students with few options outside of joining the military, working a lower-skilled, low-paying job or enrolling at a community college.
Thirty years ago, there were far more paths available to students graduating high school, including pursuing apprenticeships to become electricians, chefs or carpenters or pursuing a well-paying job immediately. While economic changes and the demand for college graduates have greatly affected the job market, a large part of the issue is that our high schools once offered excellent career and vocational support to students. Budget cuts and cultural changes have resulted in a considerable decline in these programs, and left a void in a generation of technical jobs. It’s been reported that employers in fields that provide a middle-class wage without a traditional four year degree, like manufacturing machinists and radiology technicians are struggling to find qualified workers—to the tune of 600,000 unfilled positions.
Educators have begun to take notice, and in the last decade, there has been a movement to reinvigorate vocational education—which has been rebranded as career and technical education—in ways that mirror programs in countries like Germany and France. For instance, one high school in South Carolina has students splitting their time between traditional classroom learning and vocational, hands-on experiences: “In the machine technology shop, students program computers to make plastic molds. In a commercial kitchen, aspiring chefs prepare multi-course meals. The school also offers training in health sciences, mechatronics, masonry, electrical work, carpentry, mechanical design and more.” According to the program’s director, Ken Hitchcock, about 60 percent of graduates go on to local technical colleges, while 15 percent head off to four-year colleges, mostly in the health sciences, and the rest get jobs, aided by the industry certificates they have earned.
Our office is located in the heart of the Silicon Valley, where the question is rarely whether a student will attend a four-year school, but where they will choose to attend. Although we’ve seen so many cases where even though the “college for all” philosophy is certainly grounded in the best of intentions, it doesn’t for a offer a lot of flexibility. With hundreds of thousands of jobs available, and many students under pressure to pursue a path that might not be right for them, some argue that it’s important to commit more time and resources to creating alternatives. After all, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to life, so why should there be one when it comes to education after high school?