On a bright May day in 1998, I graduated cum laude from a top-20 liberal arts college, a Phi Beta Kappa elect with high honors in philosophy. Smith women can do anything, my professors and classmates repeated over and over, in an orgy of congratulation.
Nevertheless, here are some of the things I could not do: miter a crown molding joint, change the oil in my car, operate a welding torch, roast a chicken, insert an IV, file my own taxes, tie a bowline knot, debug a line of code, grow a tomato plant from seed, sew a pair of pants, install an electrical socket, write a business plan, replace a failed hard drive, run a Western blot, bind a book, cut hair, drive a 16-wheeler, fix a leaky faucet, read a schematic.
Though I’ve picked up a few skills in the last decade (thank God), the practical poverty of my top-shelf education keeps coming back to haunt me—like the time my toilet broke a few months ago. Two young plumbers—a journeyman and an apprentice—came over and spent half a day tearing out the old, cracked flange and setting the new toilet. They left with smiles on their faces, and a credit card receipt for about 5 percent of my yearly salary.
Massachusetts officials are pushing college educations down the throats of the Commonwealth’s youth harder than they ever have before. Last month, the chancellor of the state’s Board of Higher Education, Patricia Plummer, took to the editorial pages of the Boston Globe to promote a new statewide college-prep curriculum called MassCore. The program remains voluntary, but many supporters would like to make it mandatory for all the state’s high school students.
A new glossy ad campaign sponsored by the state Department of Education and Board of Higher Education sums up the state’s attitude toward its high-school graduates—who persist in not heading for college at a rate of about 25 percent—pretty well. In the poster, a young black man stands in the middle of a deserted street, gazing wistfully at what might be either the future or a low-flying aircraft passing by. “Think college isn’t for you? Think again,” the copy urges. “You can make it happen.”
The premise of the ads is that every high school student must go to college or perish in destitution. The campaign’s website, readysetgotocollege.com, spells things out starkly: “Want to earn a decent salary? Support yourself financially? Maybe buy a house someday? In today’s economy, a high school degree is no longer enough. You need to go to college.”
Meanwhile, as college students are writing papers about global warming, electrical apprentices are learning to install solar panels. As desk jobs are being outsourced to India, demand for licensed estheticians is outstripping national job growth.
There’s a lot to be said for a four-year college education. If you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher or a scientist, it’s a must. For the tiny minority of college students who actually get off on Chaucer and linear algebra, there is probably no substitute for the humid intellectual hothouse of the senior seminar. And a B.A. on one’s resume is a great, if expensive, way to communicate quickly to a prospective employer (or a date) that you have a certain amount of sanity and perseverance.
But both college and college prep come at a high price—not just for students taking on ever-more-crushing levels of debt, but for a society increasingly lacking in the kinds of skills a vocational education can provide.
Cheerleaders on the pro-college bandwagon claim that today’s specialized workplace demands increased levels of training and education, and they’re not wrong. But there’s a piece of the picture that’s missing from the debate. Somewhere around the middle of the last century, “vocational education” became a dirty word in America. And Massachusetts educators are still buying into it: Rarely in the public din over what to do with our delinquent youth do you hear voices standing up for vocational and trade schools—even though post-secondary vocational schools often charge lower tuition, enjoy lower dropout rates and provide more solid promises of job placement post-graduation than traditional four-year colleges.
Stephen Bonkowski, president of Gibbs College and past president of the Massachusetts Association of Private Career Schools, bemoans the oversight. “It seems like our culture, our society, has really gone more toward college at the expense of kids knowing how to work and having skills—life skills, work skills,” he says. “In my opinion, focusing on college prep doesn’t meet the needs of a lot of kids in the state of Massachusetts. It meets the needs of those who pay higher taxes.”
Given the choice between a four-year college and a school like Gibbs, which offers two-year degrees in business, legal and medical administration and computer technology, there are sound economic reasons to pick the voc school, says Bonkowski. Their first year out, he says, Gibbs graduates can expect to be making a yearly salary roughly equal to what they will have spent on their degree.
“You can’t say that about a lot of schools. I doubt Harvard can say their average starting salary is $150,000,” he says.
At the high-school level, the push to make sure all students are ready for college could eat into skills-oriented class time—particularly at specialized vocational technical high schools, which already must spend as much instructional time meeting statewide mandates as they do teaching students the skills they need to take up a trade.
“One of the great successes of vocational schools is the way they individualize curricula to students who learn best in nontraditional ways,” says Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, which opposes making MassCore mandatory. “This stuff could be in jeopardy.”
Bonkowski speculates that there could be economic forces behind the push for more college prep: “I think it’s cheaper to teach college prep. It’s easier to teach psych than sheet metal.”
The mantra of college readiness for everybody could be hurting college grads as well. As enrollment in four-year colleges rises, liberal arts graduates are facing an ever-more-crowded job market, in which their hard-earned credentials mean less and less as more of their peers chase degrees. Post-graduation career coaches have appeared on the scene, selling “personal brands” to kids who’ve emerged from college with $100,000 bachelor’s degrees and cloudy job prospects.
Cultural critics are beginning to protest. Charles Murray, controversial policy researcher and co-author of The Bell Curve, published a series of opinion pieces in the Wall Street Journal this January, in which he argued that too many people—not just indifferent students, but high achievers as well—are opting for college over vocational school. College has come to function more as a marker of social status than of genuine preparedness for the workplace, he argued.
“The spread of wealth at the top of American society has created an explosive increase in the demand for craftsmen. Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, glazier, mason—the list goes on and on—is difficult, and it is a seller’s market,” he wrote. “Rightly understood, college is appropriate for a small minority of young adults—perhaps even a minority of the people who have IQs high enough that they could do college-level work if they wished.”
If there is a Harvard of trade schools, it’s surely Boston’s North Bennet Street School. The North End academy’s programs—in bookbinding, cabinetry and furnituremaking, conventional and preservation carpentry, jewelrymaking, locksmithing, piano technology and violinmaking—are designed to elevate students to a level of fine craftsmanship achieved by only a small percentage of people in these trades. North Bennet Street courses are challenging, rewarding and unforgiving. There is no fudging your way through constructing a dovetail joint. Unlike a typical English exam, making a violin has no tolerance factor for bullshit.
Second-year North Bennet Street jewelrymaking student Katherine Darling already has a college degree, but found that her design school couldn’t teach the level of craftsmanship she wanted to achieve.
“I did it all, four years in college, but this is different,” she says. “The learning here is focused on the trade. I think everyone wants to be here. We’re all working hard every day—which in college is rare.”
North Bennet Street admissions director Robert Delaney is very careful not to naysay the value of a college education. But, he says, it’s a shame that young people aren’t encouraged to see trade and vocational education as an option.
“The thrust in high school, in the counseling systems and the push from parents, is to move young people on to college—that that is the best way to find success and stability in one’s life,” he says. “I think that that is very unfair. I think an injustice is done to many young people. It was not so long ago that great craftsmen and tradespeople were very highly respected, and they should be.”
Koocher agrees. “The academic policy community has never given voc/tech the respect it deserves. People have incorrectly and unfairly snubbed their noses at the vocational/technical programs, whose students always get the last laugh,” he says. “If your water heater breaks, one question you will not ask your plumber is, ‘What did you get on your MCAS?’ ”