If there's anything both political parties agree upon, it's that our education system is a mess. It is particularly poor at serving the vast majority of young people who are unlikely either to go to an elite school or get an advanced degree in some promising field, particularly in the sciences and engineering.
Historically, education has been a key driver of upward mobility and progress in our society. But, increasingly, its impact on boosting incomes has slowed, or even reversed, and, for many, the attempt to get a four-year degree ends in debt and widespread unemployment or underemployment. Worse still, many don't make it. Indeed, according to a 2010 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, young adults in California are less likely to graduate from college than were their parents.
These failures make things even worse for workers with only a high school education, as they must compete for even low-wage jobs with people who either have been in college or have graduated. So, we now see college graduates working in jobs as humdrum as barista or even janitor. This has even led to some pretty dubious lawsuits against schools by disgruntled graduates who feel they were misled by post-graduate employment claims.
The worst performance is at the grade-school and high school levels, particularly in California. Blame funding, teachers unions or demographics, but our state's basic education system has been deteriorating for decades. California was ranked 48th in 2009 for high school attainment. In 2000, it ranked 40th. In 1990, it was tied with Illinois for 36th place.
Clearly, if we are to advance as a state, and a country, we need to develop a new perspective on education. It's not just a matter of money, as progressive journalists,teachers unions, education lobbyists and advocates for various ethnic and political causes all insist. Money should be spent but more emphasis needs to be placed on how it is spent. After all, America boosted per-pupil spending on public elementary and secondary education by 327 percent from 1970-2010 (adjusted for inflation) with no rise in student test scores.
As for the effectiveness of college, a recent Rutgers University report found that barely half of college graduates since 2006 had full-time jobs. And it's not getting better: Those graduating since 2009 are three times more likely to not have found a full-time job than those from the classes of 2006-08. Since 1967, notes one 2010 study, the percentage of underemployed college graduates has soared from roughly 10 percent to more than 35 percent.
What we need to do is rethink the notion, supported by President Obama and others, that the solution to our education woes primarily is “more.” More what? What are the job prospects for the new crop of ethnic-studies majors, post-modern English graduates and art historians, for example, particularly those from second-tier institutions? These kind of liberal-arts degrees are, as the New York Times recently reported, that tend to earn graduates the least, while those degrees that pay the most are largely offered by schools aimed at technology, mining and other “hard skills.”
First, we need to understand that educational differences and capabilities exist and cannot be easily adjusted simply by forever lowering standards. Our most competitive institutions need to make sure that people leave with the highest degree of critical skills. Grade inflation at Harvard may not produce unemployables, but it does weaken the value of the degree and, even worse, suggests that one can not expect too much knowledge, or reasoning capacity, from graduates. Indeed, many employers complain about the lack of “soft skills,” such as communication and critical thinking, as much as they do about applicants' lack of harder skills such as math and science.
This suggests that even those of us who teach at more selective universities cannot just rest on laurels. Schools have to focus more on developing actual skills – notably in presentation and research – even among the brightest students. Instead, all too often, as the Manhattan Institute's Heather McDonald has pointed out, political education – usually, but not always, tending toward the progressive left – actually predominates over learning how to think critically and express ideas coherently.
More important is the need to put greater effort in lifting students who may not be ideal for a classical liberal four-year education. This may include a greater emphasis on skills with practical applications, such as nursing, rehabilitation, technical and scientific areas of specialization. It also includes expanding innovative programs, such as at LaGuardia College in New York, that helps high school dropouts to get their diplomas.
Although some of these students will still seek four-year degrees, for many, the best opportunities for employment do not require more than a two-year degree, or simply a certificate. This may be particularly critical for the roughly 40 percent of students who attend college but don't finish.
These include many fields where employment has been growing, notably, in energy, manufacturing and – with the resurgence of the housing market – construction. But the biggest shift may be as a result of the current energy revolution, which, notes the president of the engineering and electronics conglomerate Siemens, Joe Kaeser, “is a once-in-a-lifetime moment.” Cheap and abundant natural gas, in particular, is luring investment from European and Asian manufacturers and sparking demand not only for geologists and engineers but also machinists, rig operators and truck drivers.
The workforce in many of these fields is rapidly aging, and the demand for new, updated skills, particularly involving computers, has soared, leaving manufacturers desperate for necessary workers.
There is already, notes a recent Boston Consulting Group study, a shortfall of some 100,000 skilled manufacturing positions. In this respect, millennials – which I have called “the screwed generation” – may have finally caught a break. By 2020, according to the consultancy BCG and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nation could face a shortfall of about 875,000 machinists, welders, industrial-machinery operators and other highly skilled manufacturing professionals.
This already is the case in parts of the country now enjoying the energy and manufacturing renaissance. In training facilities in the New Orleans area, where some of the new trade school students have migrated after receiving four-year degrees, and near Columbus, Ohio, you can see many young people preparing for positions not only in medical fields, but as technicians, machinists, plumbers and electricians.
Businesspeople almost everywhere decry such labor shortages, but rarely lament a lack of English post-modernist scholars. As I saw on a recent trip to Houston – in many ways the country's most economically dynamic city – developers enjoy high demand by are stymied by a lack of skilled labor. In some cases, companies are beginning to invest not only in community colleges but also looking to recruit high school students into these professions.
This practical approach may offend people to whom it seems reminiscent of the infamous “tracking” system, which was used to steer even the most academically gifted minority students into manual professions. Still, stuffing more students into a system that, in the end, fails to prepare young people for the future, and lands them in debt, makes little sense. Today a record 1-in-10 recent college borrowers has defaulted on student debt, the highest level in a decade. And, with wages for college graduates on a downward slope, one has to wonder how many more will join them.
Some “progressives” believe the solution lies in subsidizing even more the current system. In reality, such an approach will only continue the current failures, with fewer students graduating with needed skills and more years of wasted effort. Shifting the financial burdens from parents and students and onto business and the taxpayer does not seem the best way to boost public support for education.
Instead of bailing out the current system, we need to find ways to change our educational focus from the elite level to the certificate program, in ways that serve the needs of both the economy and the next generation. For the talented students I so often encounter at Chapman, this means greater rigor, more serious reading and opening themselves to conflicting ideas. But, for many others, the focus should be on practical skills that can lead to middle-class jobs. We have to learn to appreciate that there's nothing wrong with a son or daughter, rather than aspiring to become a doctor or lawyer, instead, earning a good living as a plumber.
This story originally appeared at The Orange County Register.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
Graduation photo by Bigstock.