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We'll All Be Better Off If We Can Just Agree That College Isn't for Everyone

We'll All Be Better Off If We Can Just Agree That College Isn't for Everyone

Photograph by Craig Warga/Bloomberg

Sometimes the national conversation gets off track.

That appears to be the case with the deluge of ongoing studies, journal articles, op-eds, and blog posts debating the value of a college education. Some of the better arguments, pro and con, can be found here.

What’s wrong with the debate is this: Many of those expressing views on the topic seem to be suggesting that there’s a black-and-white answer that applies to everyone. Yes, college is a great investment; the statistics prove it. No, college is a waste of time and money; just ask the thousands of recent grads who can’t find jobs in their chosen fields and are living in their parents’ basements.

In truth, of course, it really depends on the individual student. So, as a former president used to say, let me make my position “perfectly clear”: I think it would be great if every American could attend college…but not necessarily immediately after high school and not necessarily the type of college that dominates academia today. (As I’ve suggested before, there is a need in the U.S. for a new kind of college or degree combining liberal arts with industrial training.)

Nor should people go to college because government, the media, and the education establishment have created the illusion that those who don’t are failures. Nor should it be because the average college graduate will earn more over the course of a lifetime than the average person without a degree.

The truth is, as I noted a year ago, “college isn’t for everyone—but work is, or should be.” And preparing the next generation for success in the workplace (on which count many of our public schools receive failing grades) should be just as important as, or even more important than, preparing students for college (on which count many of our public schools also receive failing grades).

So let’s get real. Some people would be far better off learning a skill—at a community college, a trade school, or on the job—than going directly from high school to college. They can take college courses later, if they choose, to advance their careers, segue to another field, or simply to enrich their lives. But for now, let’s at least make them employable. By doing so, we not only help them but also ourselves.

Here, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is a comprehensive list of of jobs that require degrees—and those that don’t. What’s interesting about the many positions that don’t need four-year degrees is how closely they correlate with a list of hard-to-fill jobs that Express Employment Professionals identifies in a white paper, Caution: College Might Not Be For Everyone. Published in early April, the report lists the top 10 jobs the employment agency found hardest to fill in 2013. The majority of these—including welders, machinists, commercial drivers, and sales and administrative professionals—don’t need college degrees.

So why are they hard to fill? Because we’re not preparing students for such careers. The entire U.S. education system, with few exceptions, is aimed at pushing students into college.

The white paper makes a strong case, as I have in the past, for devoting more resources to and placing greater emphasis on vocational education, what the company refers to as career technical education. It really doesn’t matter what you call it. What matters is that we do it.

Harold L. Sirkin is a Chicago-based senior partner of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and co-author, most recently, of The U.S. Manufacturing Renaissance: How Shifting Global Economics Are Creating an American Comeback (Knowledge@Wharton, November 2012).

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