The overselling of college
By RICHARD DAY and JOHN ROSS
Education is consistently one of the top concerns in our surveys around the state. Yet, as desirable a goal as quality education is, a "successful" education appears to follow one course — a college preparatory high school program followed by a degree from a four-year college, regardless of its stature.
Evidence for this is found in data collected by the University of Michigan. Since 1976, the university has annually surveyed over 3,000 high school seniors nationwide. The latest readily available data are from 1988.
Many of the questions relate to job and education aspirations, and from 1976 to 1988 the shift towards the "college ideal" program has been dramatic (see table 1). The greatest decreases in those wanting to go to trade school have occurred among Midwestern students and among poor students (those who have missed or skipped significant amounts of school and have a "D" average). Over the same 12-year period, there has been a significant increase among this group of poor students who want to graduate from a four-year college.
The increase in college aspirations is, mirrored in the shift in career plans that has occurred over the past 12 years.
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Between 1976 and 1988 there has been a dramatic increase in the percentage of high school students who want to be employed as professionals (see table 2). The concern is that many of these students are being misled. Compare the aspirations of the 1988 senior class with the 1987 job market. Over half of the class of 1988 aspired to be professionals, while professionals actually made up only 19 percent of the job market. Clearly, a significant number of students who hope to become professionals will fall short of their goal.
What has caused this shift away from trade education and the skilled trades and towards college education and the professions? Part of the explanation is the increased importance of job status and earnings over the past 12 years. Since 1976, two job attributes have surged in importance among high school seniors: "high status" and "can earn lots of money" (see table 3).
Given the increased interest in salary, we are concentrating the second half of our work on comparing the earnings of those in the trades to those with college degrees. We believe that the $20-plus per hour salary of a craftsman will compare favorably to salaries of the baccalaureate graduates of most colleges and programs.
The conventional wisdom appears to be that to be a success one must have a college degree, but there are opportunities in the trades. A great number of students are not being well-served by our school system if those opportunities are not clearly explained. Those who are trying to recruit apprentices for the trades among high school students believe that high school counselors are part of the problem — they are rewarded for placing students in college. Students in turn are falling for the conventional wisdom that success requires a college degree.
The ramifications of the denigration of the trades and the overselling of a college degree are considerable. Many argue that America will thrive in the global economy only when it again places an emphasis on manufacturing. Few will refute that this country will always have a need to build things. The question becomes: Will there be anyone left who wants — and knows how — to build them?
Richard Day has his own survey research firm, Richard Day Research, in Evanston. John Ross is an associate in the firm.
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