The Apprentice

Why must a college education be just the way it is? Why must students be sequestered on campus for four years attending lectures and reading textbooks? Is there any proof that the longstanding model of higher education is truly the optimal way to train young minds?

Given academia’s current failures and inefficiencies—including high dropout rates, growing student debt, a beer-and-circus social spectacle that dominates many campuses, and measured outcomes that show many students fail to increase their knowledge significantly in four, five, or more years—maybe not.

One possibility for not just improving but remaking higher education for the better lies in restoring the old-fashioned apprenticeship concept. In earlier eras, it was the dominant way to educate the young. Most practical instruction—even at the highest skill levels, such as architecture—was accomplished through hands-on training by a master practitioner, rather than at a school.

As time went on, all high-level training was absorbed into the college curriculum, and apprenticeships became reserved for the more manual trades. Yet there is no reason why the two methods can’t be combined to gain the advantages of both.

In fact, colleges have already been attempting to do just that—albeit in limited fashion—by providing internships at commercial firms, non-profit organizations, and government offices. Perhaps even greater benefits would result from making the pragmatic practitioner, rather than the theoretical academic, the dominant partner in the education process.

There is some precedent for such cooperation. Art schools and museums have long taken advantage of their natural alliance. The Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington (formed out of the Corcoran Art Gallery) and the Art Institute of Chicago (founded as both school and museum) are examples of this symbiotic relationship between practitioners and educators.

One recent attempt along those lines is the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History. In 2006, the museum received accreditation from the New York Regents in 2006 to offer a Ph.D. in comparative biology. With its world-class scientists and variety of educational programs, becoming a degree-granting institution, as the school’s website states, is “a natural extension of the Museum’s integrated mission of science and education.”

This concept can be extended further through creating degree programs offered by practitioner organizations that are part work and part traditional “book-learning.” At least one such program exists: The Apprentice School at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, where students are paid to work on large ocean-going vessels, primarily those of the U.S. Navy, and take tuition-free classes toward associates degrees.

The main thrust of Newport News Shipbuilding’s Apprentice School is to learn manual trades, not to educate students whose primary intent is to gain an academic degree. But many think tanks and private research facilities have the capacity to provide undergraduate educations, at low cost, equal to or better than those offered by many traditional colleges. Such organizations are often staffed by Ph.D.s who are top-notch researchers and analysts, and who have taught—or continue to teach—at the collegiate level. Perhaps even more important, such organizations focus on achieving real objectives, which is often missing in a university setting.

One organization that could potentially add higher education to its mission is the John Locke Foundation (JLF) in Raleigh, North Carolina. The JLF is a think tank that focuses on state policy from a free-market perspective. It employs roughly 25 people; very recently, it boasted two people with Ph.D.s in economics and one person each with a Ph.D. in political science, a J.D., a Ph.D. in history, and a Ph.D. in education.

With such an array of expertise and a wealth of opportunities for hands-on experience, JLF could offer a bachelor’s program in government or political science that would blow away anything done by traditional universities. Even better, it could be offered for free, or nearly so, if conducted as an apprenticeship program with students paying tuition by working. JLF staff could devote roughly two hours a day to instruction and training. In return, the apprentice/students could make up for the staff’s loss of productivity by performing some of the more tedious aspects of their research.

Such practitioner-based programs would likely require lots of independent study, but most learning comes down to students reading, writing, or working through problems by themselves anyhow. Discussion groups and one-on-one training would replace PowerPoint drudgery, a welcome change for the bright, self-motivated students who would be attracted to this form of education.

While students would still gain a strong theoretical background, the practical side would really be the program’s forte. JLF focuses its efforts on the state government of North Carolina. Currently, JLF’s interns are in the middle of it all. They attend and report back to staff on sessions of the legislature, help with research, and even write articles for the Carolina Journal, a monthly magazine. In the practitioner-based college, the apprentice-students would be even more intensely involved than the interns are now.

The graduates of such a program would be prepared to hit the ground running in a variety of careers, working for political organizations, government, think tanks, media outlets, and various research entities (as well as entering graduate school). Making them especially desirable to employers would be their experience producing professional-quality work for pay rather than amateurish student projects done for grades.

The apprenticeship concept could also be applied to private industry. Students pursuing business degrees at a private firm would spend roughly half their time in independent study or receiving instruction from experienced executives, salesmen, accountants, and other professionals (and perhaps an academic or two hired to fill gaps in expertise) to give them the “big picture.” They would spend the rest of their time learning various aspects of the business from the ground floor up, performing the same entry-level jobs as other workers and earn the prevailing wage (to pay for tuition). For example, students would start their freshman year working on the factory or warehouse floor, then move into customer service, purchasing, accounting, and so on as they progressed academically.

Both parties would benefit from this arrangement. The company gets responsible part-time workers who learn quickly.  As the students approach graduation, their experience and familiarity with the business processes and product make them ready to step seamlessly into lower-end management or professional positions. The students, of course, would get an excellent free education (or nearly so). 

Naysayers will likely offer a few objections to the concept of practitioner-apprenticeship educations, but these are easily surmounted. First, many claim that one purpose of a college education is to produce well-rounded individuals rather than a bunch of single-minded technicians. Practitioner-based schools could easily ensure the necessary breadth by contracting out with local colleges or online schools to provide general education curriculums.

Accreditation is a second potential problem. A system of accreditation supposedly verifies that an institution provides at least a minimal quality of education.  And currently, the federal government requires a school to be accredited for its students to qualify for federal financial aid. But apprentices would largely pay their way by working—rendering the need for accreditation moot. And employers would soon realize the benefits of hiring graduates of work-centered programs, whether the school had accreditation or not.

Furthermore, the advantages tip the scales much more heavily than the criticisms. These schools could signal the end to exorbitant tuition costs, excessive government subsides, and enslaving amounts of student debt.

Additionally, businesses today often complain that college graduates students are not prepared for work. Making a large share of education consist of actual work directly addresses that complaint. 

This type of education may not be for all, but it enables the avidly interested to be immersed in their chosen field. Their environment will be dominated by professionals with a keen interest in what they do, not by immature, disengaged slackers looking to avoid serious scholarship, who are all too common on modern campuses. Although practitioner-based education may look to be primarily vocational training, it actually heightens the intellectual experience; the academic discipline becomes the focus of a college education, rather than peripherals such as the social life or athletics.

And why should higher education be left entirely to academics? Perhaps it’s best not to have educators so cloistered from the real world, as they are today, but to have educators whose ideas must hold up when challenged by real world events.