Politicians from both parties, while on the campaign trail, often argue that they will work to make a college education accessible and affordable to all Americans. Very rarely will one hear calls for "better quality" of education at our colleges and universities, with such debates seemingly being restricted to our K-12 educational system. An opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education claims, however, that many of our institutes of higher learning are failing to meet the challenge of providing a good return on investment for those attending their institutions.
In his piece, education consultant Marty Nemko argues that "college is a wise choice for far fewer people than are currently encouraged to consider it," and that colleges and universities need to be held accountable for their "defective products: students who drop out or graduate with far too little benefit for the time and money spent."
Nemko points out that over 40 percent of students who enter four-year institutions do not graduate in six years, and cites the "killer statistic," that,
"Among high-school students who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their classes, and whose first institutions were four-year colleges, two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later."
Nemko also takes issue with the quality of education received by those who do graduate, stating that "50 percent of college seniors scored below "proficient" levels on a test," requiring them to perform basic tasks, and that "the percentage of college graduates deemed proficient in prose literacy has actually declined from 40 to 31 percent in the past decade."
Many young people, Nemko argues, should look to other routes of career development and education, such as apprenticeships and other vocational training.
Other options do exist, even in the face of a difficult economy. Around the nation, there are communities reporting a need for more skilled workers, requiring training not necessarily linked to gaining a bachelors degree. Manufacturers in northeast Wisconsin face a shortage of new workers, with one company president noting that the local technical school, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College,
"had 40 job openings posted for CNC technicians. They graduated seven people. In mechanical design, they had 85 job postings and graduated nine people. In electro-mechanical technology they had 75 job openings and graduated four people."
Austin, MN, faces a shortage of maintenance mechanics. According to one local technical instructor,
"If we can’t get more [people] interested in two-year college educations and jobs that require a specialized skill like industrial maintenance mechanics or carpentry and electricians, we’re going be in a deep world of hurt in about five years when all these people retire and we can’t produce goods we need to produce."
Communities around the nation will need to find ways to meet such shortages, and build their productive economies. Failure to do so may lead to a loss of potential economic growth. According to the technical instructor, in the face of shortages of skilled workers, "companies may back off on the expansion or growth. Or they may end up relocating to a place where they can find these employees." Convincing young people that there are other good career options outside the four year degree path will be among the many challenges faced in building our nation's economic future.