Sunday, May 29, 2016

College Isn’t Always the Answer

Plenty of alternatives can prepare young people to enter the workforce.

By Jeffewy J. Selingo

May 26, 2016

During this particularly rancorous election season, at least one bipartisan consensus persists: More Americans, we are told, need to earn undergraduate degrees. The political debate tends to focus on the best way to graduate more people with less debt. But it makes little sense to send more students to college
when nearly half of new graduates are working jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, according to a 2014 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

It would be better to reconsider the entire issue. There’s a disconnect between supply (what the education system produces) and demand (what employers seek). Rather than trying to shuffle young people off to college three months after they graduate from high school, policy makers should support alternative routes to the education and training required for high-quality jobs. Plenty of successful examples have sprung up around the country.

Siemans and other manufacturers, for example, developed a high-school apprenticeship program in North Carolina when they couldn’t find enough workers with advanced skills. After completing a three-year apprenticeship, the students leave with an associate degree and a $55,000 starting salary.

John Deere runs a similar program at Walla Walla Community College in Washington state. Students are trained to fix million-dollar farm equipment, which allows them to use their hands and advanced math and mechanical skills. High-school guidance counselors, who are evaluated on the proportion of students they send to four-year universities, may discourage such choices.

It might also be helpful if more high-school graduates took a “gap year” before heading off to college. Too often they pick a field of study based on what’s familiar, with little exposure to many of the jobs that exist today. Having high-school graduates take time to explore careers before college—through internships or national service—gives them a sense of focus and purpose. It likely saves money in the long run too.

While not a traditional gap year, a program in Baltimore called BridgeEdU bills itself as a reinvention of the freshman experience. It offers college credits, internships and coaching for under $8,000.

The number of teenagers who have some sort of job while in school has dropped to 20% in 2013 from about 45% in 1998, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Once in college, students need to combine education with relevant work experience. Otherwise, they know little about the workplace before they land their first full-time job after graduation.

More colleges should embrace the idea of cooperative education. At universities such as Northeastern and Drexel, students alternate between the classroom and the job. Co-ops are part of the undergraduate experience at these institutions, and paid work makes up anywhere from one-third to almost half of the time a student spends in school. Co-op education helps students develop a tolerance for ambiguity in their work, which so many employers say today’s college graduates lack.

Many who earn a bachelor’s degree are not prepared to enter the workforce. A new learning ecosystem is emerging outside of traditional higher education to assist them. General Assembly offers courses on topics like Web design, and Koru teaches practical business skills. Students can also use free or inexpensive online courses from edX and to build skills that can help them get that first job.

There is no silver bullet for reducing unemployment and reversing wage stagnation. Sending more high-school graduates to get traditional bachelor’s degrees, free or not, isn’t the answer. Embracing some of these locally tested ideas on a national scale would be a good start.

Mr. Selingo, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, is the author of “There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow” (William Morrow, 2016).