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Higher Education in America: A Modest Proposal

Over at Thousandaire, proprietor Kevin McKee argues that college students need to develop salable skills rather than focusing on grades. He suggests young people avoid  majoring in subjects that won’t result in high-paying jobs (such as general business) and instead focus on majors such as those among CBS Money Watch’s 20 Best-Paying College Degrees.

One of the problems with this point of view is that it conflates education with vocational training. Both are important, but they’re not the same thing.

Personally, I’d like to see my college students have some skills: I’d like them to be able to write an idiomatic sentence and cobble together several comprehensible sentences into a coherent paragraph and then build an adequately researched, well organized document from a bunch of such paragraphs. About 60 percent of them cannot.

I wish they could all read at an eleventh-grade level, the level for which the Wall Street Journal writes. At least 40 percent of them cannot.

And it would be wonderful if they could think logically and clearly, without falling into error, fallacy and confusion. A good 70 to 80 percent cannot.

It would be astonishing if they understood something about the history, sociology, and literature of their native culture. The ignorance displayed by the typical lower-division student takes your breath away. Among other things, students ranging from freshmen to seniors have told me that nothing of importance happened during the 19th century except the Industrial Revolution, that Wisconsin is a Rocky Mountain State, that the word “urbanization” is incomprehensible, that Arizona is a Great Plans (sic!) state, that all African-American children are ipso facto children at risk, and that the Dust Bowl occurred in the Southwest. One graduating senior majoring in English (not the university’s dumbed-down English Ed program) raised his hand in a second-semester advanced editing course to ask what a noun is.

Interestingly, a large proportion of CEOs and successful business owners have undergraduate degrees not in business or accountancy but in the liberal arts. This is because liberal-arts training teaches critical thinking skills and communication skills, as well as furnishing the mind with a broad understanding of history, culture, science, language, and math.

Kevin is right in saying that GPA doesn’t matter once you get past that initial job. But stump-dumb ignorance sure does.

On the other hand, for all but the best and the brightest, our business culture devalues true education and instead seeks worker bees. As it stands, the average college student’s stump-dumb ignorance doesn’t matter much, and so he or she might as well be using the four-year college education period for vocational training. This state of affairs, unfortunately, does little to make our children’s lives better and over the long run performs a disservice to America’s businesses and industry.

So, here’s the modest proposal…

With a small change to our educational system, we could do something to fix that predicament. We could make college-level education a great deal more efficient and provide our young people with a future that is far more secure than what they now can look forward to. It goes like this:

Instead of going straight into a four-year bachelor’s program, American college students should be required to start with a two-year vocational program.

Pick a job. Any job. In the first two years of school, you will take courses and apprenticeship training (i.e., internships, preferably paid) related to that job. For example, you’re interested in medicine (say you want to be a nurse, a P.A., or a doctor), that first two years will be spent learning an entry-level occupation in that field, such as EMT, respiratory therapist, or medical office skills. If you want to be a business executive, you would first learn bookkeeping, office skills, marketing, and human resources. During this period, you would also take lower-division core courses around the voc-ed training. Some jobs require rudimentary math, science, and communication skills, for example, and so you could take your lower-division math, science, and composition courses during the voc-ed phase. Time might remain for you to complete a few other lower-division core courses that fulfill B.A. requirements, too.

At the end of this first two years, you will be qualified for a job. If you chose wisely, you might even be qualified for a job that pays a living wage.

Now you can complete the bachelor’s degree or take college classes online in any subject you please.

If you took enough core courses during the voc-ed segment of your higher education, you could finish the bachelor’s in two or three years, allowing you to proceed to the master’s rather quickly. Bright students could accelerate their graduate-level training in the same way they could accelerate their undergraduate degrees, by taking certain key courses (such as research methods) before they officially move up to the next level. So, it might be possible to complete an 18-month graduate program (an MBA or an MMS, for example) in a year.

Students would spend five or six years completing the B.A. (many already do that, as they struggle to hold minimum-wage jobs while triaging their college courses), but by the time they finish, they absolutely will be qualified for a job that will put food on the table. And because that first two years will guarantee a living wage, a student who suffers from intellectual curiosity actually could major in the liberal arts, anthropology, or whatever other course of study appeals to her or his bliss. A bachelor’s degree in general business on top of a voc-ed certificate plus some summer work would indeed qualify a graduate for something other than stocking the bookshelves at Barnes & Noble.

Meanwhile, since American k-12 schools do little or nothing to qualify students for real college-level work, those who can’t or don’t want to jump through the hoops to get a bachelor’s degree could stop at the end of two years and go to work at a job that will let them move out of Mom and Dad’s house.

Proportionately fewer students would go into bachelor’s programs, but universities would lose little in tuition, because they’d be clipping it from 18- and 19-year-olds in the first two years of voc-ed. Actually, this scheme could increase university enrollment: young people who would ordinarily go to community colleges might be drawn to four-year campuses, when offered a vocational degree or certificate with a university’s name attached to it. And with momentum and two years of maturity under their belts, many students who would have stopped at a junior-college A.A. might move into the B.A. path.

Colleges and universities already offer the coursework that would make up these two-year programs, and so rather little adjustment would have to be made. For not much expense and rejiggering, universities could educate and train…and a bachelor’s degree would get a young person a decent job.

Moment of Fame

Speaking of the vagaries of American higher education, Funny’s post on building an academic career off the tenure track was included in this week’s Carnival of Personal Finance, hosted by Money Cactus.

7 thoughts on “Higher Education in America: A Modest Proposal”

  1. Damn good idea. Oh the risks I would have taken as a young adult, if I had an electrician’s ticket under my belt to backstop me. And if only I would have gone with my instinct and taken liberal arts, instead of four years in “Sciences”, which have their own particular brand of stoopid burned into the system.

    The trouble with your plan, though, is the path of human nature. With a two-year vocational training, a young man (maybe a young woman too) will want to use that training to earn money. Thence and thither, the treadmill beckons. Few would make it back to academia.

    • That’s not a problem, that’s a feature. We have WAY too many people with Master’s and Doctoral degrees, and no job prospects. We really don’t need more people who have mastered “puppetry” or “analyzing linguistics” or “the dialectics” of anything.

      We need plumbers, craftsmen, medical assistants, competent office assistants, and other people who can do useful things. WITHOUT an attitude of entitlement, and without an assumption that they should be getting, minimum, $50k their first year.

      So, some of them will decide to stop their formal learning at that point.

      So what?

      • @ LindaS: So what? Well, education makes your life better. It fosters critical thinking, insight, understanding of present events in the perspective of what has come before, and wisdom. Real education has little to do with vocational training. Learning is NOT job training.

        As a practical matter, some of the best craftsmen I’ve known have been highly educated men. Often they’re self-educated, but the point is they read widely, they know history and they keep up to date on current events, they think critically, and they carry on a conversation that would blow your average Ph.D. out of the water. And one of the men in my business group has been a craftsman for 40 or 50 years; he also has made himself an educated man with a sharp eye for flim-flam of all kinds. And that’s so what.

        IMHO, you’re quite right that we should make a place of honor to smart, well trained, and talented people in the trades and crafts. Because America equates income with respect, we should be paying those people well. Same is true of teachers, fire fighters, and police officers.

  2. @ Vinny: Well…one issue there is that’s exactly what’s happening now. The attrition rate in community colleges is astonishing. Part of that is because so many students are unprepared for college; part is that many work part- or full-time, which interferes with their college careers. A recent study ( showed that only 35% of community college students observed graduated within three years, and the rate dropped to 7% among part-time students.

    In Las Vegas, for example, 42% of incoming CC freshmen need remedial work; of that group, fewer than 10% will succeed at bringing study skills up to par and graduate in three years.

    So yes, attrition rates will remain high. However, the students who would go on to the bachelor’s degree in the present system would probably continue to do so. For them, the benefit would be that before they completed the B.A. or B.S., they would already be qualified for some occupation that would make them a living. Thus, we would not have hordes of college graduates earning minimum wage — or who can’t get jobs at all.

    Here’s what I suspect: If large numbers of present-day community college students were mingled with large numbers of “traditional” students who confidently intend to proceed to the bachelor’s level, fewer of the students who presently attend community colleges would drop.

    You understand, these students are no less bright and no less energetic than students on four-year campuses. Some are economically disadvantaged, and having grown up in areas that are served by poorly funded and supported schools are also educationally disadvantaged. By and large, though, they are not stupid. But I have observed a culture that’s particular to the community college campus: it’s a culture of attrition.

    In any given course, surprising numbers of students who are perfectly competent to complete the course, who are not failing the course, will drop. Usually they do so without giving a reason, or simply stop attending. Even more amazingly, those students who do fail often seem not to be especially disturbed or fazed by a D or an F.

    As an undergraduate, I would have freaked totally OUT if I’d thought I was getting anything less than a C. And I did drop courses strategically to keep my GPA up — a professor had to be very good, indeed, to keep me in a class if it looked like I would end up with less than a B. The students I’m seeing now will accept a D or an F and barely blink.

    I think that if these students were mingled with large numbers of students who assumed, as a matter of course, that they would push on to the bachelor’s level, more of my students would stick with the program, at least to the A.A. level. I suspect quite a few more would proceed past the two-year degree and make it to the bachelor’s.

    They need to be with classmates who don’t assume it’s normal to fail. A system that put all students on the same track from the outset would accomplish that.

  3. Our university just released a report that over half of our students have two or more failing grades at midterm. I’m not surprised. Neither were the folks who wrote into the paper afterward. Neither were any of my students, lol. Your plan is brilliant. Most people don’t really want “higher education.” They want a job. Ironically, my students seem stunned at the entry level pay they will receive for the B.A. they’re obtaining in most majors. I’m not sure where they come up with the yearly salaries they expect to get (I could speculate, but I’d rather not: think sun not shining on certain parts!), but it’s certainly not rooted in reality. Given the numbers who wouldn’t go on to finish their degree anyway, this sort of plan would give them a truly marketable skill rather than having to mark “some college” down on a job application (all the while paying back those onerous student loans)!

  4. @ Budget Glamorous: Yup.

    They get the pay rates off the Internet. Google “starting pay,” “average pay,” or “median income” for any occupation you can think of, and amazing riches come up. Often the sites making these claims are posted by proprietary schools offering online degrees.

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