We were temp-parents of two traveling German 20-somethings last week, and it gave me a chance to pump them for information on their high school/college systems– as well as show off the city I love. I don’t know the details of the German education model in depth, but I’ve always thought, on the surface, it makes more sense than our system. Vanessa and Johannes–both on their way to university this fall– gave me a CliffsNotes version. That’s why the headline this morning that Maine is dipping its toe in the water of a five-year high school plan caught my eye.
The idea behind Maine’s program, which is still in the taskforce stage, is that high school students could take introductory-level college courses (both four-year college and two-year technical courses) ”so that in five years of high school, they could graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree, or two years of transferable college credits, all for free,” reports the Bangor Daily News .
Now that makes sense. Encouragingly, they’re not ignoring vocational coursework in the planning process. The Times’ David Leonhardt may keep hammering on the point that four-college still pays (“The next time you hear naysayers poormouth college,” he reports, “ask them if they plan to send their own children”), but the reality remains: nearly half of all freshmen in four-colleges do not make it to graduation, and the only reason the payback from college is rising (for now) is because the bottom has dropped out. The wages of those with a BA have been flat since 2002 while the wages of those with only a high school degree are falling like the bottom tearing out of a grocery bag. What Leonhardt skims over in his argument is that the college premium, as it is called, is based largely on comparing the wages of four-year college grads with those with just a high school degree. It doesn’t typically factor in the wages of those with some college or a two-year degree, like in this chart. (And notice how flat the premium since 2002.)
We tend to believe that if we just funnel more kids into four-year college we’ll solve the problem of a declining middle class and a threatened standard of living, ignoring the other option: raising the wages of those with less education. But we’re hanging our hat on an assumption that is in many ways, wishful thinking. The number of available jobs depends not on the number of qualified candidates, but on the size and growth of the economy. The economy grows when consumers demand more things, not when we pass education reforms that encourage more kids to go to college.
There is no shortage of four-year college graduates. If that were the case, employers would have gobbled up these underemployed (and underpaid) college graduates slinging drinks or working retail, at regular rates of pay. So the question is, how long before the surplus of college grads drags down their wages along with others? As Econ 101 says, if there’s a surplus, wages for college grads will decline. Since 2002, their wages have been flat, so it won’t take much to push them into negative numbers.
We need, in other words, to talk about this differently. I’m not saying people shouldn’t go to college. I’m just saying that “college” needs to be expanded in these discussions to include viable two-year or even shorter technical/vocational programs. The “college for all” mantra is Wobegonian. AND, we need to work on wages overall.
The Maine policymakers realize this it looks like. As one taskforce member told the Bangor paper, “We have to do more training that is tailored to the jobs that are out there and not just college or two-year degree programs.” Indeed, many needed skills for good-paying jobs can be obtained in a yearlong training program that could flow from a high school diploma, possibly at the same school building.
As one taskforce member put it, “He’s absolutely right and we have to look at that. I just paid $75 an hour to have my lawn tractor fixed. Maybe I am in the wrong line of work.”
Vannessa and Johannes would recognize this five-year high school model. In Germany, youth are slotted by around 4th grade into university tracks, vocational tracks, or a “bottom rung” track.
Before we go all ballistic about tracking, I’m not urging that. But there must be a way to connect kids early to hands-on learning that they engage with and enjoy rather than operating under the delusion that everyone is four-year college material.
In Germany, those with solid skills but less aptitude for “book learning” are required to do 10 years in school and then make a decision: continue on the university track for two more years or bail out and head over to two more years of vocational training. The key here is that the system makes this option visible early in life and there is little stigma to the choice. The kids do split off into separate buildings after tenth grade, which doesn’t make for much mixing between the groups and probably calcifies the class system, but we can work on that. (And even Germany is considering pooling everyone in the same building in the near future.)
Maine is on the right track, along with a similar effort in North Carolina. They are giving their kids more options earlier in life while trimming back the costs of college for those who attend. More innovations like these are needed rather than such a focus on prepping everyone to enroll in college. The door to college should never be shut for those who want to attend. But for those who do not, we need better options. Let’s face it. We already track in this country: we have the college track and the track right into the State Penitentiary. How’s that working for us?