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I heard a joke a few years ago. It went like this:

A couple is at home when their heater breaks. Neither one knows how to fix the heater, so they call the local handyman to come and take a look. He gets to the home, checks out the heater, and diagnoses the problem. The couple agrees to pay the man $1,000 (it’s soooo cold!), as long as he fixes the heater immediately. He grabs a hammer, bangs the side of the heater, and voila! It works perfectly, once again.

The couple is outraged. “You really expect us to pay $1000 just because you swung a hammer at the heater?” they ask. “Either one of us could have hit the heater with a hammer!”

“Ah,” the handyman replies. “So you could have. But I’m the one who knew exactly where to swing.”

If you are a hammer swinger, you’re probably chuckling – and if you’re one half of the couple, I’d guess this isn’t a very funny joke at all.

But it does prove a point. America spends hundreds of billions of dollars on higher education, not including private scholarships. As parents, we encourage our kids to stay in school, to study hard, and to pursue one (or more) college degrees, in the hopes of increasing their chances of living the American Dream. We tell them that a college education is the only way to get ahead and make lives for themselves. And some may even fall back on the old proverb that if you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day – but if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

But what happens to those kids who don’t want to learn to fish? The ones who’d rather learn to make the reels and fishing rods, so to speak? What happens to the 80% of students who don’t “travel smoothly from high school diploma to college degree to career”? What are we, as country, doing to help them gain the skills they need to be successful?

As it turns out, not much.

College costs keep rising, but the return remains the same

In a recent piece by The New York Times, Oren Cass, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, made the case for funding vocational education by pointing out that the push for a college education has not actually prepared people for a working life in America. As he explains, “Forty years of reform, accompanied by a doubling of per pupil spending, has failed to improve this picture. Standardized test scores haven’t budged. SAT scores have declined. More students enroll in college, but the share of 25-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree did not increase from 1995 to 2015, and it stands barely above the 1975 level” (emphasis mine).

Furthermore, the myth that wages increase exponentially with a degree in your back pocket has been thoroughly debunked: “The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that high school grads with above-average earnings (50th to 90th percentile) earn $34,000 to $70,000 annually. College grads with below-average earnings (10th to 50th percentile) earn $28,000 to $58,000.”

Is that to say that a career which requires a college degree will never pay more than a career where no degree is needed? Of course not: your accountant certainly makes more than a waitress at a local restaurant. But that really isn’t a point. The point is that, despite all of this money being thrown at students to go to college, the number of people who are actually getting college degrees isn’t all that different today than it was 40 years ago.

The problem is two-fold: first, forcing students towards getting a degree they don’t want (or may not be able to complete) just increases debt with no way of paying it off, creating an unnecessary burden for the student; second, having a degree no longer ensures any kind of financial success. And if you don’t believe me, ask any number of young adults (or even not-so-young adults) who find themselves in entry-level positions because they cannot find work in their chosen career.

What Cass argues is simple: for less money, we can fund additional pathways to success for students who have no desire to pursue a degree. He lays out his plan this way:

“For the roughly $100,000 that the public spends to carry many students through high school and college today, we could offer instead two years of traditional high school, a third year that splits time between a sophisticated vocational program and a subsidized internship, two more years split between subsidized work and employer-sponsored training, and a savings account with $25,000, perhaps for future training. Any American could have, at age 20, three years of work experience, an industry credential and earnings in the bank.”

Education for education’s sake

So: is Cass correct? Maybe. If you believe that education, at any point, is simply a means to a production-driven end, then spending money to ensure students can learn valuable skills and trades may be the right option. If, however, you believe that all students should be learning for the sake of learning itself, and that education is fundamentally a way to ensure that all people are good stewards of their citizenship, then Cass’s suggestion might be horrifying.

But regardless of what side of the debate you’re on, this much is clear: $150 billion is too high a price tag for a system that is failing more than half of our students. Those who wish to pursue a college degree should, of course, be encouraged and supported. For those who would rather learn a trade, or forgo college altogether, we owe it to them to find a viable pathway forward.

And as far as our handyman goes? Well, who’s to say that he doesn’t do complex computations without a calculator, or love opera, or study current events, or complete the Times Sunday Crossword in black ink? Heck, he may even have a college degree or two, yet found more joy in working with his hands. I bet you know at least one person (and it may even be you) who learned for the sake of learning, and built a good life without ever stepping foot into a college classroom.

At the end of the day, we need to take a good, hard look at what we’re doing for our kids. If college isn’t the right option for them, what other options are there? Maybe, instead of telling everyone they need to go to college, we should be helping kids – ours, and everyone else’s – find a way forward that works best for them, and allows them to build a life that’s both secure and satisfying.

After all, college isn’t the only place you might learn exactly where to swing a hammer.



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