Why everyone should not go to college
By Ed Hajim and John Merrow
Contributing Writers Want to know why it can be tougher to get an appointment with your electrician or your plumber than with your doctor? The answer is simple: Our national and state policies have consistently funneled most high-school graduates into colleges and universities. Even young people who show an interest in vocational training are urged to study computer technology. And we’ve done the urging with money: grants and loans.
“College for all” is not working. Forty percent of those who enroll in college drop out. Nearly 45 million college graduates and dropouts are in debt to the tune of $1.47 trillion. Technology is overflowing with talented job-seekers. And – to the point of this essay – not enough young people are mastering important trade skills. While technology matters, society also needs welders, electricians, plumbers, landscapers, woodworkers, nurses and other healthcare workers, auto mechanics and chefs: important trade skills that have paid handsomely and will again once the pandemic passes.
Education is the solution to almost everything, said George Eastman of Kodak fame. Yet we seldom talk about education for jobs like these. And, when we do, the language is often disparaging. “Trade school” is one popular term of disapproval, suggesting that plumbing and similar activities are unworthy activities. Let’s get one thing straight: these are real occupations.
The late educator John W. Gardner said it best: “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy; neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”
Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard need to find more ways to support young men and women who want to work in the trades. While both islands send about three-quarters of their high-school graduates on to advanced education, not enough receive scholarships that support their vocational training. Support for vocational training is critical, but it is also beyond the means of many families. Vocational programs range from $50,000 to $200,000 for a four-year program (plus room and board), although there are two-year certificate programs in fields like furniture design and one-year programs in others like welding.
We are convinced that the number of these scholarships remains miniscule compared to college scholarships because too many of us have been slow to pick up on what young people want. John Buckey, principal of Nantucket High School, is a welcome exception. He remembers when the pendulum swung to “college for everyone” 15-20 years ago. He says it’s swinging back.
“Kids now say, ‘Wow, I can do as well going to a technical school and do something I love.’ We’ve had applications from students interested in flight training and photography,” Buckey said. His high school covers both ends of the spectrum, academic and vocational, and he considers both of equal value.
A few years ago, the Nantucket Golf Club Foundation launched a program to support students taking a different track. And what a great bunch of young people they are.
“Education has always been a dream of mine,” says Malkia Blake, a recent highschool graduate who came to the U.S. from Jamaica. “It is not a common experience in my family, and education is one of the few ways I’ve seen other people escape from the grasp of poverty and illiteracy.”
Malkia is attending the Culinary Institute of America on a scholarship: a vocational scholarship.
Blaise Flegg completed a 16-month course for welding certification. A mobile welder for a small company, he was able to get an education in welding and put some of the money that would have gone into tuition into equipment for his trade.
“Down the road, I hope to start my own company,” he says.
Brianna Falconer is a baking and pastry major at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. Her goal is to own a bakery and shelter for those coming out of jail after having served their time. For the homeless, she would provide a place, “where they would live and work until they’re ready to integrate back into society.”
Michael Bartley goes to class in a kitchen lab with his white T-shirt tucked in, shiny black shoes, his knife kit and his ironed chef jacket. He just finished nine days of labs going over dinner and plating.
Gideon Holdgate is studying wooden sculpture and furniture design at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
“I’m learning to write and draw entire building plans and improving my craftsmanship in the trade I’m pursuing, all while minimizing my college debt.” He says.
If we are lucky, these young people will return to Nantucket after completing their studies. After all, Nantucket – a resort island whose population swells to 50,000 in the summer – needs service workers.The island’s building industry has created jobs for plumbers and electricians (who charge a minimum of $185 an hour), carpenters and designers. The hospitality industry is huge, with hotels, guest houses and restaurants busy during the season. Destination weddings also require these services, along with those of caterers and photographers. Well-paying jobs are here for the taking.
It’s time to acknowledge that what matters is continuing to study and learn. Not attending a four-year college.
“There’s only room for so many attorneys, teachers or accountants on Nantucket,” says Susan McFarland, who administers the Nantucket Golf Club Foundation scholarship program. And, she adds, “In some of those fields, the money is not as good as it is in the trades.”
J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon concurs.“The reality is the future of work is about skills, not just degrees,” he says.
Today’s high-school students understand that now they can have the best of both worlds with vocational training. They are guaranteed jobs when they finish the program, they get to work at jobs they love, and they get to stay on the island they love.
An island is not the world, but this program is for lifting people in all parts of our society. Supporting vocational programs like this will strengthen our economy and enable countless young people to live fulfilling lives. It will also make it easier to get a plumber when you need one.
This is not a new issue, unfortunately. America was notified about the problem more than 30 years ago in a groundbreaking report, “The Forgotten Half.” The report, published by the William T. Grant Foundation on Work, Family and Citizenship in 1988, talked about the “young people who build our homes, drive our buses, repair our automobiles, fix our televisions, maintain and serve our offices, schools and hospitals, and keep the production lines or our mills and factories moving.”
It warned that they aspire to work productively, but never quite make it, “living their lives as adults in the economic limbo of unemployment, part-time jobs and poverty wages. Many of them never break free.”
Let’s not make the same mistake again.
Ed Hajim is chairman emeritus of the University of Rochester and chairman of High Vista Strategies. He has personally provided more than 200 scholarships to deserving students.
Former PBS NewsHour Education Correspondent John Merrow is the author of “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.” He now makes his home on Martha’s Vineyard but lived on Nantucket in the 1970s.