Avoiding the College Trap

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education reported that student loan defaults are surging to record levels, with one in seven loans in default.  What is not discussed much in the articles is the huge percentage of defaulting students who do not even complete their degree.  Only 56% of students complete 4-year colleges within 6 years and only 29% of students attending 2-year colleges complete their degree in 3 years.  Saddled with debt, about half of college students drop out and many cannot qualify for the higher paying jobs often needed to pay that debt.  Poorer students typically borrow up to 90% to pay today’s very high tuitions, and they bear heavier debt loads than their middle class peers.  Worse, Federal guaranteed loans, (now 76% of all student loans) are not extinguishable in bankruptcy.  As a result, the collective damage to the young people of our nation who fall in this trap is enormous.

A few years ago, the Pathways to Prosperity Project at Harvard’s School of Education began recommending that not all high school graduates be pushed toward college.  The problem of course is that there are very limited alternatives in most high schools.

Vocational education programs (“Voc-ed”) in high schools were once strong developers of skilled labor for American industry.  However, Voc-ed programs have declined dramatically since the 1970s to the point that many high schools have no such programs.  The decline of Voc-ed has been accelerated by state and local education policies that recommend that virtually all students should go to college.  With no alternatives for non-college bound students and with many college student dropping out unprepared for a vocation, our employers simply cannot find the skilled workers to replace large numbers of baby boomers now retiring in key industries.  Builders and manufacturers need employees trained in digital technical skills, like CADCAM and Solidworks to create blueprints and 3-D printing.  The petro-chemical industry in Texas is facing such a severe shortage of speciality welders that companies are funding training programs for high school aged students.  Programs like these should be offered in high school to train both traditional skills and new digital skills to those for whom college is not an attractive option.  German schools are often cited for excellence in preparing students with technical skills for quality industrial jobs.

Research by High Schools that Work strongly suggests that training for real work situations will make classroom math more relevant and will help reduce the number of drop outs.  Receiving this sort of education in high school also avoids the need for our children to borrow money to take Voc-ed course work at the local junior college or specialty school.

Right now, less than half of our 9th graders will go on to complete college.  Why not design an educational system that serves the majority of our students?  Why not offer an alternative to prepare students for good paying, skilled industrial and digital jobs?  Would this not be better than forcing them toward college, where many are trapped with borrowed money they often cannot repay?

At New Century, we help prepare students for college and others for industry certifications (some of which require reading skills at the college level).  But in our observation of high schools across the US, we simply do not see enough quality programs serving the latter group.