I read a Q&A session that Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame recently did with CNN this morning. Mr. Rowe, as anyone who has seen his shows knows, is interested in and passionate about blue collar jobs. In this latest interview, Mike touched on some general themes about the skills gap in this country, stigmas and stereotypes surrounding blue collar jobs, and the unfilled demand in America for skilled trade jobs. In particular, he stresses that a 4 year college degree isn’t the only path to success in this country. I agree with all of his sentiments and believe that he makes many valid points. Especially when you consider the trillion dollars of student loan debt that exists and the fact that unemployment for 20-24 year olds remains much higher than that of older age groups. I’d like to spend this time talking about my experience with the education system and where it succeeds, but also where I feel it fails us. Let me start by telling you my journey through the American education system.
I had a wonderful k-12 education. This is one area where I think our country shines. I received an excellent foundation in all the basics–reading, writing, math, science. And I had a lot of opportunities and latitude within the school system to explore those things. My high school offered AP classes (similar to IB) in a variety of subjects where you could take a college level course and receive credit for it in a high school. The benefits of such programs are obvious when it comes to learning. But there was also an economic benefit as well. By the time I graduated high school I had enough college credits to enter college as a junior. Skipping two years of tuition and room and board obviously saved me a ton of money, and as a result I was able to obtain my first degree without incurring any debt.
But no system is perfect, and k-12 education does have its flaws. For one thing, while the education afforded to me was first class, that is not the same experience students can expect in other parts of the country. The US is unique in that the public school system is funded by property taxes. Growing up I lived in one of the most affluent communities in my state, and that was certainly reflected in the schools I went to. But other areas–particularly rural and inner cities areas–don’t have as much funding. And that’s a big problem because it creates a giant education disparity which creates economic complications for us.
Second, while the education I received was stellar in regard to math, science, and writing, the system itself did absolutely nothing to prepare me for real life. While the things that the school system emphasizes are important, they do nothing to really prepare you for how to function in the real world. By the time I graduated I knew more about chemistry and biology than the average college student, sure. But I didn’t really know anything about banking. I had no concept of debt. We spend 4 years loading students up with equations and concepts and Catcher in the Rye and then just thrust them into the real world. Not surprisingly, most people flail.
Even though I was a bright and successful student, I didn’t really have time management skills. For my entire life up until the point college, my entire school schedule was planned out for me by someone else and all I had to do was follow along. Then in college, suddenly I was responsible for managing every aspect of my time and education. It was pretty overwhelming. A lot of students don’t even know how to balance a check book. When you’ve lived with your parents your whole life, chances are you don’t have a clue what it means to be “in debt.” I didn’t receive any counseling on debt, nobody explained to me what I was in for, nothing. And the same goes for other college students. And even if someone tells you, you still don’t really have any concept of what it means to owe someone $40,000 (or more). It’s just a really high number.
And, to make Mike’s point, nobody in high school ever once talked to me about trade school, vocational school, or apprenticeships. Never once. It was just assumed that we would all go to college. And most of us did. Of course, that might have had something to do with the affluent part of town that I grew up in. If your school is populated by mostly upper-middle class children, it’s probably assumed that college is the path for them. And that really gets to Mike’s point about stigmas and stereotypes surrounding blue collar workers and jobs. Those types of jobs were probably never introduced to us because culturally they were “beneath” our socioeconomic class.
Now that I’m older I realize that this is a bunch of bunk. My first degree was in English, and as a result I’m pretty well read. But looking back now, I can clearly see that I didn’t have to pay someone $10k a year to read and discuss a bunch of books. There’s no reason why a carpenter or plumber couldn’t be well read. There’s really nothing inferior about self-education (unless we’re talking about a STEM field, but we’ll get to that). But self-education doesn’t make people money, unfortunately.
Now let’s talk about when I actually got to college. I was lucky (or smart if you think I planned it out this way, in which case I’ll definitely take the credit) in that I did enough work in high school to enter college as a junior. As a result, I never had to do the whole “gen ed” thing. I skipped all that and was allowed to go straight to the courses that pertained exclusively to my major. Even with my second degree this was the case; since I already had a BA I didn’t have to take general education courses for my BS in nursing. The majority of my compatriots in the college system, however, weren’t so lucky. General education is a total and complete rip off. There, I said it. “General education” is what you spent the previous 18 years of your life receiving before you got to college. It seemed ludicrous to me, watching friends repeat classes and subjects that they’d already covered in high school–except now they were paying $700/credit plus books to do it.
Now, I will take this opportunity to highlight another thing that our educational system does well. And that’s community colleges. I know a lot of people who did the inescapable gen ed thing at a local community college and then transferred and finished out at a 4 year college. Doing this allows people to live at home, and as a result pay for those first two years out of pocket. Avoiding two years of loans is definitely a good thing. And the people I know who did this were very satisfied with the education that they got, and in the end they still got the 4 year degree. Unfortunately, more people don’t do this because for two reasons: again, community college is stigmatized to some extent in this country. But by and large, people want to have “the college experience.” The independence, the life experiences, etc. And there’s something to that to some degree. But it’s not worth $40,000. You can have life changing experiences and personal growth without massive debt.
As I mentioned, I have two degrees. One in English and one in nursing. I don’t regret my degree in English, let me make that clear. It actually served me incredibly well during my nursing program. You write a lot of papers, you chart a lot, and the area of nursing that I’m interested in (public health) requires the creation of a lot of educational material–all of which are greatly aided by an ability to quickly and efficiently absorb information and then concisely and coherently communicate it on paper. In that regard, my English degree was actually a boon to me. But it didn’t really help me find employment upon graduation. Remember my epiphany about paying to be well read? Turns out employers think the same thing. Live and learn.
So I overpaid for my first degree. The amount of money I paid did not align with the amount of doors it opened for me. And in general, I think a lot of college grads who hold degrees in liberal arts find themselves in a similar predicament. But the story is quite different when it comes to my nursing degree. That certainly has worked in my favor by opening up a lot of well-paying doors. And that is where I think the ultimate fault in college lies: it only makes sense to go to college if your future debt-to-income ratio makes financial sense, if you’re using it as a springboard to a graduate degree, or if you’ll end up in some sort of position that offers loan repayment. Otherwise it’s essentially a bust.
And that’s where STEM comes into play. It makes financial sense to enter a STEM field. The payoff at the end justifies the expenses incurred. Unlike, say, an English degree (unless you’re going to take that English degree and apply to law school, I suppose). Plus you can’t really teach yourself a STEM field. You can’t be a self-taught doctor, sorry. You need the education system for that one. So in that regard, our college system is excellent. And if you still want to study philosophy or literature on a college level, just be smart about it and try the community college experience. You’ll pay 1/4 the cost for the same exact result.
So, what can I say I took away from all of this? Well, for one thing there is a difference between school and education. We tend to conflate the two in this country. I know plenty of people who went to school, but don’t know enough or think well enough to be considered “educated.” And conversely, school is not the only way to receive an education. Anyone who goes to a trade school or enters an apprenticeship is still being educated. But instead of learning about what the color green means in The Great Gatsby they’re learning a practical, applicable skill.
Which ultimately leads to the realization that education and intelligence are not always linked. The amount of letters that come after a person’s name or the piece of paper framed above their desk doesn’t always mean that they’re “smarter” than anyone else. That may well actually be the case, but that paper and those letters aren’t the likely causative agent of the intelligence–some people are naturally intelligent, and thus they naturally excelled in and took advantage of our educational system. But someone with a fancy degree doesn’t necessarily have a higher IQ than someone who doesn’t. A carpenter or electrician can be just as intelligent as a surgeon. And that’s part of the stigma we have surrounding blue collar work: that it’s for people who aren’t smart. We probably think this because, well, there was no college education! But this stigma and other stereotypes are based on fallacies.
So how do I think the education system could be reformed? I have a few ideas.
1. Prepare students for the real world. Teach them life skills–how to budget, banking, time management, etc. High school is the perfect time to do this.
2. Advertise all career pathways. Every student should be aware of ALL of the opportunities at their disposal, including trade and vocational schools, apprenticeships, etc.
3. More loan repayment options. We don’t have to make college free (although I think that’s a viable option as other first world countries have shown), but make it easier to pay it back. Teachers, doctors, and (thankfully) nurses have programs where debt is forgiven because of their service to the public. Why not extend that option? Why not forgive, say, 50% of anyone’s tuition if they provide, say, 2,000 hours of documented community service?
Or make the repayment easier. Student debt will follow you for life. Rather than penalize people who want to better themselves, we should make the options for repaying a loan directly tied to income earned. The standard 10 year model of repayment forces pretty outrageous payments on people who can’t afford them. So instead of making someone with a degree in philosophy who can’t find any employment other than as a barista pay $300/month for 10 years, why not charge them $100/month for 30 years? A sliding scale makes much more sense for loan repayment.
4. A PR campaign for blue collar work. That’s really the only way we’re going to get rid of the stigma and stereotypes surrounding perfectly viable jobs that often pay just as well–if not better–than many white collar jobs. This idea was touched upon in the Mike Rowe interview and I think it has a lot of merit.
5. Less emphasis on what you know and more emphasis on how you know. Right now we do a lot of teaching toward standardized testing. And while standardized testing certainly has its uses, ultimately this kind of education is extremely harmful. It’s much more beneficial for schools at all levels of education to teach students how to think critically. If you can become a critical thinker, you can really master any skill or concept or pass any test because you have the foundation and the tools to learn, well, anything. But if you spoon feed people information for the purpose of regurgitation, they don’t really learn anything and they certainly won’t be able to use that information in a meaningful way later on. Granted, there are some things that you just have to remember–but memorization is not the way to knowing.
At the end of the day, while I think that there certainly are aspects of the American education system that succeed, I also think it’s pretty clear that there are a lot of broken parts. I think that solutions can come from many different places on this issue, thankfully: locally, federally, and within families. Hopefully some meaningful reform will happen on both a policy level and in our cultural perceptions. I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks about education in America. And for any foreign readers, feel free to share how your country’s educational system differs!