by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The notion that the United States faces a higher education bubble and that college has been oversold is not news to regular readers in this forum. A new article on vocational education from TIME‘s Joe Klein, headlined “Learning That Works,” suggests he might be moving toward the same conclusion.
Vocational education used to be where you sent the dumb kids or the supposed misfits who weren’t suited for classroom learning. It began to fall out of fashion about 40 years ago, in part because it became a civil rights issue: voc-ed was seen as a form of segregation, a convenient dumping ground for minority kids in Northern cities. “That was a real problem,” former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein told me. “And the voc-ed programs were pretty awful. They weren’t training the kids for specific jobs or for certified skills. It really was a waste of time and money.”
Unfortunately, the education establishment’s response to the voc-ed problem only made things worse. Over time, it morphed into the theology that every child should go to college (a four-year liberal-arts college at that) and therefore every child should be required to pursue a college-prep course in high school. The results have been awful. High school dropout rates continue to be a national embarrassment. And most high school graduates are not prepared for the world of work. The unemployment rate for recent high school graduates who are not in school is a stratospheric 33%. The results for even those who go on to higher education are brutal: four-year colleges graduate only about 40% of the students who start them, and two-year community colleges graduate less than that, about 23%. “College for everyone has become a matter of political correctness,” says Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University. “But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than a quarter of new job openings will require a bachelor of arts degree. We’re not training our students for the jobs that actually exist.” Meanwhile, the U.S. has begun to run out of welders, glaziers and auto mechanics–the people who actually keep the place running.