Vocational Education Goes to College

When the University of Georgia announced that “student success” would be heavily weighted in future tenure decisions, it opened the door to the possibility of a long-overdue change in college curricula. As long as students continue to say that a well-paying job ranks high in their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree, they will demand instruction directly geared to that objective. If colleges continue to fail to meet that demand, students may decide that college is just not worth attending.

There is already evidence to that effect. Enrollment in the humanities is declining, as students likely see little relevance in those studies for their career aspirations. In contrast, business majors are the most popular undergraduate degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Notably, the movement to career-oriented education is growing among private and religiously affiliated colleges and universities. It is growing because it’s what students demand: Surveys show that students’ main reason for going to college is to obtain employment.

The old model of “learning for learning’s sake” seems to no longer resonate in young people’s minds—and for good reason. In his book The Debt Trap, Josh Mitchell notes that the average cost of a bachelor’s degree at “four-year private colleges has risen nearly 800 percent since 1980, more than five times the rate of inflation”—resulting in onerous debt that is largely non-dischargeable. That has created the conditions for a widespread reality check: Is a bachelor’s degree actually worthwhile? What students want to know is whether their degree will pay off. With the exception of STEM and business majors, no such assurance exists. That’s perhaps one reason why a Gallup poll found that the number of people who considered higher education “very important” has fallen “nearly 20 points since 2013.”

With welders now earning $150,000 annually and free of student debt, a day of reckoning may be on the horizon.

The argument that in the long run, the earnings of those who majored in the social sciences or the humanities eventually “catch up” understandably fails to convince some young people. Who can blame them? They have bills to pay now and want an immediate return on their investment. College is an investment, and like all investments, there is an expectation of a return. Unfortunately, when it comes to college, $500 billion of student debt may never be repaid, according to Mitchell.

At the graduate level, the contrast is even more dramatic. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis of federal student loan data, “at about 98% of universities that offer master’s of business administration programs, graduates typically made more money two years out of school than they had borrowed.” The WSJ’s findings are based on an analysis of 600 programs.

The same cannot be said for those who majored in the humanities and social sciences. For example, half of those who earned a master’s degree in film at Columbia University had a median debt of over $180,000, but were earning less than $30,000 two years after graduation.

The debate over whether higher education should be classical or utilitarian is not altogether new. Prior to the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which handed over 17.4 million acres of public domain to the states for the development of agricultural and mechanical arts, it was the classical vision of education that characterized colleges and universities. Many believed it was this kind of education that created lifelong learners. But Rep. Morrill presciently understood that a utilitarian understanding of education has far greater value for most students and ultimately for society. Based on their decisions today, students are confirming that he was right.

It’s easy to forget in all of this that there was a time when few young people went to college. Graduation from high school typically marked the end of their formal education. In that era, it mattered little what college students studied because the mere possession of a degree immediately distinguished them from their peers. But things began to change at the close of World War II as the nation transitioned to a service-oriented economy. These new jobs required knowledge and skills that most high schools were not equipped to provide. As a result, counselors began to advise students that their futures were bleak without a degree. It’s not surprising, therefore, that college was soon seen as indispensable.

Against this backdrop, Congress stepped in to make college more accessible by creating an unusual industry where taxpayers bear the losses if loans aren’t repaid, while defaults don’t hurt colleges, which get the money upfront. The result has been disastrous. According to the New York Times, more than 43 million students at last count held over $1.6 trillion in school loans. Some “7.7 million borrowers were in default and nearly 2 million others were seriously behind” in payments. The college-for-all movement may have been well-intentioned, but it has left students with a financial burden that they soon regret. With their resultant poor credit, too many graduates find it difficult to rent an apartment, lease a car, and pay for the basics of daily living.

As a degree becomes more commonplace, its touted marketable value has taken a hit. A closer look reveals that the widely-cited “wage premium” attached to a bachelor’s degree is more nuanced than believed. A recent study by the Manhattan Institute, for example, found that the top 25 percent of those with only a high school diploma earned more on average than the bottom 25 percent of college graduates.

Could it be that young people have been wildly oversold on the importance of a bachelor’s degree? With welders now earning $150,000 annually and free of student debt, a day of reckoning may be on the horizon. Perhaps more and more students will see that a two-year technical program or trade school is a more rewarding path.

There is evidence that hope exists. Findings from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reveal that college enrollment “dropped by more than 2 million from 2011 to 2019” before the pandemic. In 2020 alone, undergraduate enrollment fell 4.5 percent—the largest decline in several decades. It’s about time.

Walt Gardner, who was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education, blogs about education at theedhed.com.