08/27/2010 12:48 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Too Cool for School? Examining the Case Against College

Earlier this month Forbes magazine published a piece about a controversial question that has garnered increasingly more mainstream attention: "Should nearly everyone go to college?" College professor and director of the Center for College Affordability & Productivity Richard Vedder says no. "All too often," he explains, "college graduates incur crippling debt and don't improve their job prospects." As a result, some students are beginning to feel cheated.

It is still gospel among politicians that college education makes people better off. The federal government showers grants and tax subsidies on higher education; President Obama has set a goal to increase the percentage of Americans with two- or four-year college degrees from 40% now to 60% in 2020. The job market, though, is telling us that this is wasted effort.


Do liberal arts degrees make people more productive? That's not clear. The widely advertised difference in incomes between grads and non-grads (over a lifetime, about $500,000) doesn't really prove anything. It could be that the difference is entirely attributable to traits like intelligence or perseverance that kids have before they matriculate.

In the midst of this painful, seemingly endless recession, and with the skills gap that has left hundreds of thousands of good jobs unfilled -- despite the fact that 14.6 million Americans remain out of work -- it's time we examined just how we're preparing our kids for their forays into the workforce. Is college always the best route?

It's heresy for someone like me to suggest that a liberal arts education isn't always the answer. After all, I was privileged to receive top-notch schooling from Phillips Exeter Academy and Stanford University. Generous financial aid packages granted this mechanic's daughter access to the esteemed institutions that taught me how to read, how to think, how to write. For the record, I firmly believe that everyone who wants to pursue scholarship of this sort should have the opportunity to do so. Period. But the reality is, not everyone does. And classrooms are not the only (or even, necessarily, the best) places to learn.

I, for one, received my most important training for my current position -- chief engineer of a retired 1931 New York City fireboat -- on the job, through a decade-long, hands-on apprenticeship. Before I began working aboard Fireboat John J. Harvey, I used to pressure my younger siblings to go to college: "You want to keep all your options open. It's the only way to get ahead." I had drunk the College Kool-Aid. But soon, my own apprenticeship transformed my thinking about the future facing not just my siblings, but society as a whole.

Today, as the country struggles to fix our broken education system -- not to mention the economy -- maybe it's time we analyzed what benefits a college education actually provides. Without question, intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and the confidence that classroom learning can bestow have inherent value. [Read more on the value of a liberal arts education from Martha C. Nussbaum] But do those automatically come with a BA? And given how many students (like Amanda Magnus) choose college for the sake of employment opportunity, it's crucial that we examine how we're preparing young people for work.

If kids banking on post-college job offers have begun to feel hoodwinked, it probably has a lot to do with the lie society has been telling for generations: that obtaining a four-year degree is the only path to success, and success means doing white-collar work. Progress requires truth-telling. So, it's time to debunk the myth that making or fixing things is a dead-end career choice made by people who simply aren't smart enough for office jobs, and dispense with the judgment that work done in cubicles automatically has more value than work done in shops and at job sites that requires both brain and brawn.

The skills gap -- the mismatch between employers hunting for qualified applicants and jobless Americans -- stems in part from our society's debasement of hands-on work, which began, some say, during the Industrial Revolution with the birth of a managerial class that oversaw, rather than participating in, physical labor. Mike Rose, researcher and author of The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker and Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us reveals how American culture views work through a classist lens:

Our society tends to make sharp and weighty distinctions between white-collar and blue-collar occupations, between brain work and hand work, 'neck up and neck down' jobs, as one current aphorism has it.

But what I've found as I've closely examined physical work is its significant intellectual content. This content is no surprise if we consider the surgeon, but the carpenter and the hair stylist and the welder, too, are constantly solving problems, applying concepts, making decisions on the fly. A lot of our easy characterizations about work just don't hold up under scrutiny. Hand and brain are cognitively connected.

Most people, Rose explains, believe work that requires less schooling requires less intelligence. But, as his research shows, that's simply not the whole story. So what does all this mean for our kids? It means that education should be designed to encourage all children to reach their full potential. The best way to accomplish this is to spend less time teaching to standardized tests and more time offering kids choices that maximize their natural curiosities. Educational opportunities that foster a diversity of learning styles and settings will allow some young people to discover their inclination toward making things, fixing things, and other types of hands-on work. And removing the societal stigma placed on these types of careers will set the stage for the next generation of inventors, innovators, and craftspeople whose work serves as the very backbone of American society. While some of these positions will require higher education, others will demand skill-building in other ways.

The key to encouraging progress in this arena is investing in training outside of a liberal-arts college setting, as Newsweek's Rana Foroohar illustrates:

While it's not politically correct to suggest that perhaps every citizen shouldn't aspire to a university degree, high-end technical schools that can turn a $16,000-a-year dishwasher into a $60,000-a-year welder may in fact deserve as much private and public money as mediocre four-year liberal-arts colleges churning out students with relatively useless degrees.

Politically correct or not, Foroohar has the right idea. It's time to invest in educational programs that will equip the nation with the next generation of skilled hands for building, repairing, maintaining and innovating the nation's infrastructure. The trouble begins when we, as a society, esteem only a small subset of the full spectrum of career options.

Young people debating whether or not to pursue college might be well served by considering Shop Class As Soulcraft author Matthew B. Crawford's approach:

If the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don't have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You're likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level 'creative.' To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.

Validating such a "contrarian" life course is a brave choice for the parents, teachers and guidance counselors of young people, as well. With a little help from policymakers, school boards, and community leaders, vocational training can not be only improved, but also given the respect it's due.

Barbara Ray, author of the forthcoming Not Quite Adults: Why Twenty-Somethings Are Taking a Slower Path to Adulthood and Why It's Good for All of Us, argues that fears about "tracking" kids into vocational education reveals the stigma placed on blue-collar work. "Giving a kid a clear path to a high-skilled manufacturing job is nothing to be ashamed of or worried about. It is an opportunity, just a different one from college." Already organizations, like John Ratzenberger's Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs Foundation, Rosie's Girls Summer Program, Phoenix Firecamp, and even Home Depot are reaching kids outside of school hours, inviting young people to tinker, as well as introducing them to career options in the trades, manufacturing, and other hands-on work. With help from the Obama administration and education leaders at the state and local levels, we can integrate similar efforts into the school day, thereby granting young people access to a full, broad spectrum of choices about how they will construct our future.