Can America Curb its College Habit?

by Hannah Rosenberg 

I started working at TranZed Apprenticeship Services (TAS) in late September. It’s been my second ‘real’ job since I graduated from the University of Maryland in 2015. In the little over 4 months I’ve been here, conversations about equal opportunity, workforce development and un- and underemployment have flipped my college-only mindset on its head.

Growing up, it wasn’t a question of if, it was a question of where. Where I would go to college, what my major would be—you know the drill. Going out on a limb here, but I’d say a large majority of young people in the U.S. experience the same thing.

Evidence of America’s obsession with college is everywhere. From movies and TV shows set on the quad to mandatory college fairs and “Path to University” posters hanging in the hallways as early as elementary school, it’s pretty hard not to think that it’s college or bust.

Though well-intended, the push to send every young person to college has created an entire generation of Americans so set on a college degree, that in many cases we’re willing to put ourselves tens-of-thousands of dollars in debt with no guarantee of securing a job after graduation.

High Expectations, Higher Debt

In 2016, more than two-thirds of college graduates graduated with debt- $35,000 on average- a number that’s risen 300% in the past two decades (Time Money). That brings the total to approximately 42 million Americans with combined student loan debt of 1.3 trillion dollars (and counting).

Much of the conversation surrounding the college debt crisis focuses on reducing tuition costs and increasing scholarship opportunities. Of course, these are worthy and necessary initiatives, but there’s something these conversations fail to recognize. According to a study conducted by the Center for College Affordability, around 48 percent of employed U.S. college graduates work in jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) suggests require less than a four-year college education. Eleven percent of employed college graduates are in occupations requiring more than a high-school diploma but less than a bachelor’s, and 37 percent are in occupations requiring no more than a high-school diploma.

Apprenticeship as an Alternative

Basically, we’re sending more people to college than is necessary in the existing workforce landscape and many of them are going into debt because of it. Doesn’t make sense, does it? The creators of the study work for a place called the Center for College Affordability and even they predict a decline in college applicants and a subsequent increase and interest in the “development of new methods of certifying occupation competence.”

Ring any bells?

Programs like apprenticeship, which build skills and experience though a combination of on-the-job and classroom learning, make sense – especially when you consider that while 87 percent of recent grads feel well-prepared to enter the workforce, only 50 percent of hiring managers agree (Payscale). Colleges and universities focus on expansion of mind and knowledge, but often neglect practical skills building.  This leaves graduates unprepared to enter a workforce in which 90 percent of employers prefer to hire candidates with actual experience (NACE survey data). Exceptions exist, of course; co-op programs at universities like Drexel and Northeastern incorporate workplace learning into the curriculum to help combat the skills gap, but without more programs like this, we will continue to produce over-educated, unskilled young people with high expectations and even higher debt.

If it sounds like I’m knocking college, that’s not my aim. If anything, my time at TAS has taught me there is not a singular path that is better or more right than another. There is true value in a degree, but there is also value in investigating and developing alternatives. In a world where the pace of innovation is outpacing traditional post-secondary education, we need common-sense solutions that can keep up.