President Joe Biden, his appointees and Democratic surrogates have worked to reassure us that passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill is critical to our post-pandemic recovery, but a crucial part of the law addresses something that plagued our nation well before Covid-19: the college-is-for-everyone fantasy.
A vital part of this bill, as Biden noted in a recent speech, includes creating sorely needed jobs in communities across the country. But to fill those jobs, we must collectively change our psyche and fundamentally shift how we think about the role of education and entry into the workforce. Why? Because many of the jobs supported by the infrastructure bill — jobs in fields like construction, carpentry and plumbing — don’t require a four-year college degree.
So the big question we have to answer is: What messages are our kids getting about the value of a college education? And perhaps more importantly: What messages are we — parents, teachers and mentors — giving them when it comes to their future in the workforce?
If you were to stop a group of students on the street and ask them if a college degree is necessary to secure a successful career path in this country, the answer is likely to be yes. Interestingly, just how often can depend on the group’s demographics. A recent Washington Post-Ipsos poll found that “minority teens are more likely than white teens to say graduating from college is important to them.” And while 73 percent and 59 percent of Asian and Black teenagers, respectively, believe the cost of higher education is worth the sacrifice, only 55 percent of their white counterparts agree with this sentiment.
What accounts for this perception gap? The answer could be partially grounded in myths about earnings and advancement potential that have historically surrounded so-called trade jobs. Students who were labeled as non-college bound — disproportionately underserved students and students of color — were denied placement in advanced classes or put on the vocational education track; a track sullied with lies about students’ capacities or learning abilities that cast shadows and doubts on their current and future prospects, professional and otherwise.
But as a nation, we’re now reaping the unfortunate results of that faulty narrative. For example, a 2018 report by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute indicates we’re on track to see more than 2 million unfilled manufacturing jobs by 2025 and other empty new-collar positions (jobs focusing on a specific set of skills not necessarily gained through a traditional college education) that require specialized training and/or certifications but don’t require a four-year degree. These kinds of positions remain unfilled even though the majority of Americans don’t have a college degree. That math simply doesn’t add up.
At the same time, the math on college doesn’t always add up, either. The average person today carries a $30,000 loan debt after graduating. And for many Black and African American college graduates, that number can reach upwards of $50,000, according to educationdata.org, a research site that analyzes data about the U.S. education system.
It’s not surprising that this kind of burden is prompting many college-bound high schoolers to pick colleges with lower price tags. But even at colleges with lower tuition rates, students can still end up having loans that are difficult to pay off if they’re unable to find a job with a salary that’s commensurate with how much they owe. On the other hand, most training and certification programs for new-collar positions cost a fraction of the price of a four-year degree and require a lot less time. For example, maintenance technician positions — which require only a high school diploma or associate degree-level courses — offer on-the-job training.
Now, this isn’t to say that college is the wrong choice for everyone, or that it doesn’t lead to better salaries and more job security in many cases. But college isn’t the only way to avoid a minimum wage job, and the message that it is often means many young people spend four years or more accumulating debt only to be shut out of jobs suited to their degree. Instead, many of them could be earning a certification much faster that could help fill vital jobs in our ever-changing economy.
While it’s true the pandemic and the widely reported “Great Resignation” have contributed to our country’s skills gap challenges, our country has been headed in this direction for decades.
Biden put it this way during a speech after the House passed the bill: “somewhere along the way, we stopped investing in ourselves. We stopped investing in our people. And we’ve risked losing our edge as a nation.”
No matter which side of the political aisle you’re on, I think most of us can agree with that statement. While the jobs supported in the infrastructure plan are a solid step in the right direction, only continued bipartisan efforts to support more career learning programs for students and workforce development initiatives for adults will help our country adequately address the skills gap.
Our country’s underinvestment in career learning programs for high schoolers, our woeful disregard for workforce development opportunities and the lack of high-quality enterprise training programs at the corporate level are hurting not just our kids but the economy.
Simply put, we need to start living in reality. The truth is that college isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. The truth is that many students can’t or don’t want to take out thousands of dollars in loans for college, and that’s okay, too. We know that the word “college” isn’t synonymous with success. So why are we continuing to force-feed our kids the false belief that it is?