college isn’t for everyone

Columnist Robert J. Samuelson recently argued in The Washington Post that educators and policymakers should stop encouraging every student to go to college.

He’s right.

Bachelor’s degrees aren’t for everybody. All people should have the opportunity to attend a four-year college, assuming they have the right qualifications. But the pervasive idea that one has a choice between earning a baccalaureate degree and being resigned to a life of poverty is simply untrue. And it’s destructive.

This isn’t to say that high school should be the end of one’s education. The majority of jobs in the near future – and most careers that pay well – will require some form of post-secondary education. But as admissions consultant Michael Szarek points out, there’s a difference between pursuing education after 12th grade and heading to a leafy college campus because that’s what nearly everyone else does after high school.

People who are suited to certain careers and work environments would be well advised to attend schools where they can learn a trade. An apprenticeship is a chance to earn money while being trained for work as an electrician, dental assistant, firefighter or a host of other occupations. The military, while certainly not for the faint of heart, provides job training and financial benefits like a regular salary, a housing allowance and free medical care.

All of these paths are valid choices for someone who’s searching for a fulfilling career. A well-designed high school vocational program can connect students to jobs that they enjoy and will give them a chance to contribute to society.

Samuelson writes,

One size doesn’t fit all, as sociologist James Rosenbaum of Northwestern University has argued. The need is to motivate the unmotivated. One way is to forge closer ties between high school and jobs. Yet, vocational education is de-emphasized and disparaged.

Treating vocational programs as a lesser option is a mistake. It’s the best way to learn some trades that pay well and can’t be outsourced. The guy who gets paid handsomely for fixing my Volkswagen didn’t learn auto repair at a four-year college. The women who cut my hair didn’t need bachelor’s degrees in cosmetology. The veterinary technicians who help treat my cats didn’t need four years of school.

No one should be directed toward a certain kind of school because of race or financial resources. But just as some people lack the aptitude to work on a dairy farm or build a house, some lack the temperament required for jobs like teaching, banking or law. Encouraging students to pursue careers that fit them best is a better course of action than pushing them toward traditional colleges that leave them unhappy and more likely to drop out.

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