Here is a question that interests me a lot: Are we pushing too many high school graduates into university/college education? Recently on Mercatornet Thomas C Reeves suggested that we are. The New York Times last week discussed the same question, and the Wall Street Journal implied it with an opinion piece on graduate unemployment. Is it just because of the economic downturn, or is there a long-term issue to address?

The Times cites a bunch of academics and experts who say it is time to develop credible alternatives for young people who are unlikely to get a college degree. After all, no more than half of US students who began a four-year bachelor’s degree programme in 2006 will get that degree within six years. And of those who were in the bottom quarter of their high school classes — but made it into college — 80 per cent will probably never get a degree.

Wouldn’t vocational and career training through high school programmes, community colleges and corporate apprenticeships be better, both for the youths and for society? After all:

College degrees are simply not necessary for many jobs. Of the 30 jobs projected to grow at the fastest rate over the next decade in the United States, only seven typically require a bachelor’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Among the top 10 growing job categories, two require college degrees: accounting (a bachelor’s) and postsecondary teachers (a doctorate). But this growth is expected to be dwarfed by the need for registered nurses, home health aides, customer service representatives and store clerks. None of those jobs require a bachelor’s degree.

Professor Vedder likes to ask why 15 percent of mail carriers have bachelor’s degrees, according to a 1999 federal study.

“Some of them could have bought a house for what they spent on their education,” he said.

And what about general work readiness, dependent on what we might call character training?

Professor Lerman, the American University economist, said some high school graduates would be better served by being taught how to behave and communicate in the workplace.

Such skills are ranked among the most desired — even ahead of educational attainment — in many surveys of employers. In one 2008 survey of more than 2,000 businesses in Washington State, employers said entry-level workers appeared to be most deficient in being able to “solve problems and make decisions,” “resolve conflict and negotiate,” “cooperate with others” and “listen actively.”

One of the counter arguments is statistical: “people with college and graduate degrees generally earn more than those without them, and face lower risks of unemployment.” Joe Queenan’s piece in WSJ throws some doubt on this — there are two million unemployed graduates in the US, he says, competing “tooth and nail for jobs as waitresses, pizza delivery men, file clerks, bouncers, trainee busboys, assistant baristas, interns at bodegas.”

Maybe this represents a passing phase, and maybe it does not. I tend to think that a good vocational course or apprenticeship would be a far better option for many — perhaps the majority — after high school. It doesn’t preclude higher education at a later stage as the need or preference arises — and funds accumulate. Nor does it rule out cultural enrichment and general broadening of education. There must be ways of getting these things without spending a fortune on a university degree.

What do you think?

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet