Friday, May 14, 2010

Getting Smarter About College

An Associated Press article asks whether we're spending too much on higher education for skills we can get faster -- and cheaper -- at specialty schools, what people called "Vo-Tech" when I was in high school.
Spending more time in school also means greater overall student debt. The average student debt load in 2008 was $23,200 -- a nearly $5,000 increase over five years. Two-thirds of students graduating from four-year schools owe money on student loans.

And while the unemployment rate for college graduates still trails the rate for high school graduates (4.9 percent versus 10.8 percent), the figure has more than doubled in less than two years.

"A four-year degree in business -- what's that get you?" asked Karl Christopher, a placement counselor at the Columbia Area Career Center vocational program. "A shift supervisor position at a store in the mall."
Even in the 1980's, my high school counselors were telling kids not to think of Vo-Tech as a place for people who didn't go to college. My parents did, though, and with the University of Missouri's world famous J-school down I-70 and no comparable Vo-Tech school anywhere, something less than a four-year university degree was never an option. I also had a Curators' scholarship, meaning if I kept my grades up, I had a free tuition ride for all four years. I pulled it off, but I passed on going for a Master's degree, feeling I'd earn a real Masters by building up some job experience. After 17 years of schooling, including kindergarten, I was ready to get out and start earning a living, anyway.

Many of you see a college diploma as part of the American Dream, just like owning a home. Just like home ownership, the government and other entities can help make a college degree happen for just about anybody who wants it. The truth is, not everybody needs it.

Just like those who rent all their life, we have people making a good living with GED's and trade schools, and for a lot less tuition. So what if they weren't exposed to all the flourishes of academia and humanities you get with a four-year degree? If I had to choose between being smart and being able to making a dependable income, the latter is a no-brainer... if you'll excuse the pun.

The AP article infers a troubling question: are we over-educating ourselves in an increasingly service-oriented, increasingly specialized economy? I don't think that's the problem. I think just as our economy evolves, we have to evolve too, which means getting a better buy for our education dollars.

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