One of the numerous reverberations of the COVID pandemic and our overwrought response to it is that many young people are now skipping college. For students who graduated high school in 2020, college enrollment was down 21.7 percent compared with the prior year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. And importantly, if a student doesn’t go directly from high school to college, he is much less likely ever to attend a school of higher learning. Men notably, in increasing numbers, are forsaking college. The Clearinghouse reports that at the close of the 2020-21 academic year, women made up 59.5 percent of college students, and men just 40.5 percent.
While much of the media has descended into pearl-clutch mode over the recent college exit, a reset has been long overdue. In fact, the push for universal enrollment is relatively new. In 1960, just 7.7 percent of adult Americans held college degrees, but 60 years later that number jumped to 35 percent. Writing on the subject in 2017, the late Walter Williams reported that about “1 in 3 college graduates have a job historically performed by those with a high-school diploma or the equivalent.” Williams, citing Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder, goes on to say that the United States was home to “115,000 janitors, 16,000 parking lot attendants, 83,000 bartenders and about 35,000 taxi drivers with bachelor’s degrees in 2012.”
Most universities are just not properly preparing young people for the job market. In Harvard Business Review, tech guru Michael Hansen writes that a recent poll of Americans who graduated from a community or four-year college in the past five years showed that 19 percent reported that “their college education experience did not provide them with the skills needed to perform their first post-degree job. Additionally, more than half (53%) of these college graduates have not applied to an entry-level job in their field because they felt unqualified, and . . . 42% felt unqualified because they did not have all the skills listed in the job description.”
Many students don’t even get to the point where they get to feel unqualified, because they never graduate. Research reveals that the six-year completion rate for any degree or certificate is currently 62.2 percent. This means that more than three in eight college students drop out with no credential whatsoever. Per Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, “To put it succinctly, many young people don’t do well in college because they aren’t very good students in an academic setting, they haven’t done very well in school, and they don’t like it all that much.”
With these troubling numbers in mind, parents want something different for their kids. A Gallup poll from April 2021 shows that 45 percent of parents of current students wish more postsecondary options were available. In fact, there are several.
Petrilli suggests that high school students can get a head start by taking jobs while still in high school, specifically employment “that these students, for better or worse, have a realistic chance of attaining, in industries like food service, hospitality, caregiving, or construction. Let them get started on these jobs as soon as they turn 16, but under the guidance of a school-provided career coach/mentor/therapist, and with the hope that they build valuable real-world skills that will quickly lead to greater pay and more opportunities.”
We should also create high schools with the workplace in mind. Michael Meechin, the founding principal of NeoCity Academy in Kissimmee, Florida, stresses this point, saying, “The goal was not just to create a magnet school for students considering careers in science and technology, but to operate the school like the companies they’ll work for when they leave. Our building looks and operates more like a modern workplace than a traditional school. The same can be said for our curriculum, which we designed by asking, ‘How do Disney, SpaceX and Microsoft operate?’ Our inquiry-driven curriculum is framed by our mission to have student outcomes impact the world around them.”
Then there are traditional trade schools, which students could attend right after high school. Blue collar jobs—builders, mechanics, truck drivers, etc.—will always be needed, and all pay well.
Another solid alternative to college is an apprenticeship program. The number of apprentices registered with the Department of Labor has surpassed 636,000, which represents a 64 percent increase from the level a decade ago. An example of a successful program was detailed by the Wall Street Journal in 2020. Students of the Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (FAME) program, a mix of new high-school grads and older factory workers well into their careers, typically spend two days a week in class and three days on the factory floor, earning a part-time salary. “They learn to maintain and repair machinery; traditional subjects such English, math and philosophy; and soft skills such as work ethic and teamwork. After earning an associate degree, most work full time for the factories that sponsored them.”
A study conducted by Opportunity America and the Brookings Institution tracked 389 students who began the FAME program between 2010 and 2016, and compared them with students at the same schools of similar age and academic background. The results of the study revealed that one year after graduation, “the typical FAME graduate earned $59,164, compared with $36,379 for the non-FAME graduate. Five years out, the FAME graduate earned $98,000, compared with $52,783 for non-FAME graduates.”
It must be noted that states can help alleviate the pressure to attend college. Toward that end, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has just announced that his state “will eliminate the four-year degree requirement for thousands of state jobs and partner with workforce organizations to find skilled workers to fill them.” A majority of state jobs can be handled by STARS (Skilled Through Alternative Routes), workers who’ve trained in “community college, military service, workforce training, on-the-job learning and more,” Hogan explained.
It is imperative that we finally recognize that, despite all the social pressure to the contrary, college is not for everyone. If you are planning to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc., then obviously it’s a must. But becoming an apprentice or getting a job right after high school could give young men or women a head start in their careers, and avoid mountains of debt associated with college, which they very well may never finish. (The cost of attending college has more than doubled since 1985 even after accounting for inflation. As a result, the average American college student graduates with $30,000 in debt.)
And finally, most colleges have become politically correct hellholes where, if you are not a card-carrying member of the intolerant woke religion, you are relegated to pariah status. Students have learned to self-censor, fearing lower grades if they don’t. According to a 2021 survey administered by College Pulse of over 37,000 students at 159 colleges, 80 percent of students claim they self-censor at least some of the time. About half of undergraduate students described themselves as “somewhat uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” with expressing their views on a controversial topic in the classroom.
Hence, we have gotten to the point where colleges are much more successful at stifling contrarian views than helping students find a meaningful life path. Parents, before you blindly spend an ungodly sum of cash for your kid’s college education, you owe it to them to carefully examine and consider the alternatives.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared at FrontPage Magazine.