Boston Herald –
Throw the “college for everyone” mindset out the window.
This month high school seniors in New England and the rest of the country will be applying for fall 2015 college admission. Their parents, meanwhile, will be wondering how they will pay the tab — around $60,000 for a four-year stint at a public institution; triple that for most Boston area private schools.
Despite those staggering costs, few students or parents are asking, “Is college a good investment of time and money?” Or, “Are there alternative paths to a solid future?” Few ask those essential questions because this country has been sold on the idea that a four-year degree is the only ticket to a bright future.
Government supports that simplistic idea with student loans for all takers — no matter how qualified they may be for academic work. High school counselors steer academically unprepared students toward college, even though those young people will spend much of their time in noncredit “remedial” courses. And parents believe that a four-year degree is all that stands between their children and a life of low-income, dead-end jobs.
Not that a baccalaureate degree is a bad idea. Ask any newly minted computer science graduate, engineer, microbiologist, physicist or applied mathematician. Their know-how is in high demand and is well rewarded. It’s a much different story for collegians who pursue non-technical degrees. For them, employment in and out of their fields of study is often difficult to find and poorly paid. And they often feel saddled with a sizeable student loan debt.
One reason that a four-year college education doesn’t always pack the earning punch it once had is oversupply. For every 100 newly degreed collegians, the U.S. economy offers only about 57 jobs that require a four-year degree. This means that 43 percent of grads end up with work that does not require four years of post-secondary study. This supply/demand issue is predicted to get worse. According to Labor Department forecasts, only 27 percent of new jobs in the next decade will require a bachelor’s degree.
The people most in demand are — and will remain — “middle-skilled” individuals who have a high school diploma plus an occupational associate degree from a community college, an apprenticeship certificate, or high-quality on-the-job training. This is the alternative pathway that too few parents know about and too few young people take. There is no limit to how high middle-skilled people can climb during their careers. Many go on to earn university degrees, enter management or start small businesses.
People in Massachusetts have many opportunities to build valuable, high-demand skills. In addition to its network of community colleges, it has 26 “career and technical education” high schools at which young people prepare themselves for meaningful and rewarding work. I visited one of them — Minuteman Regional High School in Lexington — a model for hand and mind training. And in the North End of Boston is the North Bennet Street School — America’s oldest trade school — where both young and middle-aged people are learning craft skills that most of the world has lost: violin making, book making, preservation carpentry and piano technology to name just a few.
College is not the only path to a secure and interesting future. America needs and rewards people who can build things, fix things, care for our health, restore Colonial-era furniture, cook fabulous meals and keep the wheels of our economy turning.
Nicholas Wyman is an employment expert, CEO of the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation and author of “Job U: How to Find Wealth and Success by Developing the Skills Companies Actually Need.” Originally published in The Boston Herald.