Traditional four-year tracks, frankly, aren’t working for most. And it’s sinking us—and our economy—leagues-deep in student loan debt.
It’s estimated that only about 30 percent of at-age students fit what educators call “the college model.” On the other hand, nearly all youths, regardless of demographic and socio-economic placement, can flourish in vocational education.
Throughout most of US history, American high school students were routinely taught vocational and job-ready skills in tandem with the three “Rs”: reading, writing and arithmetic. But in the 1950s, a different philosophy emerged: the theory that students should follow separate educational tracks according to ability.
The idea was simple. Those who were college-bound would take traditional academic courses (Latin, creative writing, science, math) and received no vocational training. And students not headed for college would take basic academic courses, along with vocational training.
Suffice to say that you’re probably aware that we’ve taken a detour from that former (and successful) line of thought. These days, if you don’t have a four-year diploma to hang over your study, you’re somehow less than those who do. From once celebrating vocational tracks, we’ve shamed them into silence.
But that’s not working out too well for the vast majority of Americans.
And, as I pointed out earlier, not everyone goes — or should go — to college. The latest figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that about 68 percent of high school students attend college. But even this sizeable population isn’t doing so well, with almost 40 percent of students who begin four-year college programs not completing them, wasting time, money, and their overall mental health in the process; many who yearn to pursue such left-of-center vocations, like industrial welding and automotive mechanics, feel as if they’re inferior to those who wear lab coats and three-piece suits, leading to bouts of crippling depression and anxiety.
And even those who do finish college, more than a third will end up in jobs they could have had without a four-year degree. (The BLS found that 37 percent of currently employed college grads are doing work for which only a high school degree is required.)
On the other hand, Germany is a country that continually embraces vocational studies, leading to near-nothing unemployment rates, low levels of poverty, and reduced civil crime.
According to the most recent figures, 9.3 million Americans are unemployed, but 4.8 million jobs stand empty because employers can’t find people to fill them. With new technology transforming work across a range of sectors, more and more businesses are struggling to find workers with the skills to run new machines and manage new processes.
So it’s high time we stop putting mountains of societal shame on those who want to ditch the classroom for the workshop. We need them more than ever, afterall. (The Germans know that.)