Plan B: Skip College

By: Jacques Steinberg

GRADUATING Not everyone does….

WHAT’S the key to success in the United States?

Short of becoming a reality TV star, the answer is rote and, some would argue, rather knee-jerk: Earn a college degree.

The idea that four years of higher education will translate into a better job, higher earnings and a happier life — a refrain sure to be repeated this month at graduation ceremonies across the country — has been pounded into the heads of schoolchildren, parents and educators. But there’s an underside to that conventional wisdom. Perhaps no more than half of those who began a four-year bachelor’s degree program in the fall of 2006 will get that degree within six years, according to the latest projections from the Department of Education. (The figures don’t include transfer students, who aren’t tracked.)

For college students who ranked among the bottom quarter of their high school classes, the numbers are even more stark: 80 percent will probably never get a bachelor’s degree or even a two-year associate’s degree.

That can be a lot of tuition to pay, without a degree to show for it.

A small but influential group of economists and educators is pushing another pathway: for some students, no college at all. It’s time, they say, to develop credible alternatives for students unlikely to be successful pursuing a higher degree, or who may not be ready to do so.

Whether everyone in college needs to be there is not a new question; the subject has been hashed out in books and dissertations for years. But the economic crisis has sharpened that focus, as financially struggling states cut aid to higher education.

Among those calling for such alternatives are the economists Richard K. Vedder of Ohio University and Robert I. Lerman of American University, the political scientist Charles Murray, and James E. Rosenbaum, an education professor at Northwestern. They would steer some students toward intensive, short-term vocational and career training, through expanded high school programs and corporate apprenticeships.

“It is true that we need more nanosurgeons than we did 10 to 15 years ago,” said Professor Vedder, founder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a research nonprofit in Washington. “But the numbers are still relatively small compared to the numbers of nurses’ aides we’re going to need. We will need hundreds of thousands of them over the next decade.”

And much of their training, he added, might be feasible outside the college setting.

College degrees are simply not necessary for many jobs. Of the 30 jobs projected to grow at the fastest rate over the next decade in the United States, only seven typically require a bachelor’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Among the top 10 growing job categories, two require college degrees: accounting (a bachelor’s) and postsecondary teachers (a doctorate). But this growth is expected to be dwarfed by the need for registered nurses, home health aides, customer service representatives and store clerks. None of those jobs require a bachelor’s degree.

Professor Vedder likes to ask why 15 percent of mail carriers have bachelor’s degrees, according to a 1999 federal study.

“Some of them could have bought a house for what they spent on their education,” he said.

Professor Lerman, the American University economist, said some high school graduates would be better served by being taught how to behave and communicate in the workplace.

Such skills are ranked among the most desired — even ahead of educational attainment — in many surveys of employers. In one 2008 survey of more than 2,000 businesses in Washington State, employers said entry-level workers appeared to be most deficient in being able to “solve problems and make decisions,” “resolve conflict and negotiate,” “cooperate with others” and “listen actively.”

Yet despite the need, vocational programs, which might teach such skills, have been one casualty in the push for national education standards, which has been focused on preparing students for college.

While some educators propose a radical renovation of the community college system to teach work readiness, Professor Lerman advocates a significant national investment by government and employers in on-the-job apprenticeship training. He spoke with admiration, for example, about a program in the CVS pharmacy chain in which aspiring pharmacists’ assistants work as apprentices in hundreds of stores, with many going on to study to become full-fledged pharmacists themselves.