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Why College Shouldn’t Be the Only Gateway to the Middle Class

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Posted on Sep 2, 2014

By Robert Reich

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This post originally ran on Robert Reich’s Web page.

This week, millions of young people head to college and universities, aiming for a four-year liberal arts degree. They assume that degree is the only gateway to the American middle class.

It shouldn’t be.

For one thing, a four-year liberal arts degree is hugely expensive. Too many young people graduate laden with debts that take years if not decades to pay off.

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And too many of them can’t find good jobs when they graduate, in any event. So they have to settle for jobs that don’t require four years of college. They end up overqualified for the work they do, and underwhelmed by it.

Others drop out of college because they’re either unprepared or unsuited for a four-year liberal arts curriculum. When they leave, they feel like failures.

We need to open other gateways to the middle class.

Consider, for example, technician jobs. They don’t require a four-year degree. But they do require mastery over a domain of technical knowledge, which can usually be obtained in two years.

Technician jobs are growing in importance. As digital equipment replaces the jobs of routine workers and lower-level professionals, technicians are needed to install, monitor, repair, test, and upgrade all the equipment.

Hospital technicians are needed to monitor ever more complex equipment that now fills medical centers; office technicians, to fix the hardware and software responsible for much of the work that used to be done by secretaries and clerks.

Automobile technicians are in demand to repair the software that now powers our cars; manufacturing technicians, to upgrade the numerically controlled machines and 3-D printers that have replaced assembly lines; laboratory technicians, to install and test complex equipment for measuring results; telecommunications technicians, to install, upgrade, and repair the digital systems linking us to one another.

Technology is changing so fast that knowledge about specifics can quickly become obsolete. That’s why so much of what technicians learn is on the job.

But to be an effective on-the-job learner, technicians need basic knowledge of software and engineering, along the domain where the technology is applied – hospitals, offices, automobiles, manufacturing, laboratories, telecommunications, and so forth.

Yet America isn’t educating the technicians we need. As our aspirations increasingly focus on four-year college degrees, we’ve allowed vocational and technical education to be downgraded and denigrated.

Still, we have a foundation to build on. Community colleges offering two-year degree programs today enroll more than half of all college and university undergraduates. Many students are in full-time jobs, taking courses at night and on weekends. Many are adults.

Community colleges are great bargains. They avoid the fancy amenities four-year liberal arts colleges need in order to lure the children of the middle class.

Even so, community colleges are being systematically starved of funds. On a per-student basis, state legislatures direct most higher-education funding to four-year colleges and universities because that’s what their middle-class constituents want for their kids.

American businesses, for their part, aren’t sufficiently involved in designing community college curricula and hiring their graduates, because their executives are usually the products of four-year liberal arts institutions and don’t know the value of community colleges.

By contrast, Germany provides its students the alternative of a world-class technical education that’s kept the German economy at the forefront of precision manufacturing and applied technology.

The skills taught are based on industry standards, and courses are designed by businesses that need the graduates. So when young Germans get their degrees, jobs are waiting for them.

We shouldn’t replicate the German system in full. It usually requires students and their families to choose a technical track by age 14. “Late bloomers” can’t get back on an academic track.

But we can do far better than we’re doing now. One option: Combine the last year of high school with the first year of community college into a curriculum to train technicians for the new economy.

Affected industries would help design the courses and promise jobs to students who finish successfully. Late bloomers can go on to get their associate degrees and even transfer to four-year liberal arts universities.

This way we’d provide many young people who cannot or don’t want to pursue a four-year degree with the fundamentals they need to succeed, creating another gateway to the middle class.

Too often in modern America, we equate “equal opportunity” with an opportunity to get a four-year liberal arts degree. It should mean an opportunity to learn what’s necessary to get a good job.


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