On the one hand, the idea that every student can and should be able to go to college seems meritocratic and fair. On the other, we don’t have good alternatives for students who can’t make it to higher levels of education. “Our education system’s very un-American,” Carnevale says. “It’s abstract. It’s not hands-on. It has no respect for labor. Think of a pioneer. Why would a pioneer take Algebra II?” Some jobs require skills that could be gained outside of a classroom, but community colleges and for-profit colleges like ITT Tech are the only places where a large number of young workers are exposed to them. The amount the federal government spends on four-year and two-year colleges, $700 billion, is ten times what it spends on all other workforce training programs, like apprenticeships, combined. It’s especially troubling for what economists call middle-skill jobs that require less training than a bachelor’s degree.
The preparation colleges provide is uneven, and many still hold to the ideal that higher education should focus on academic enrichment, not skills training. College also puts workers into the job market later than if they went to work directly after high school, which means they have to wait before they can earn money. It’s also riskier: Students have to figure out how to achieve what they want and then pay for it on their own, and there’s no guarantee their training will lead to a job.
Pushing every student toward college is partly why so many people are now stuck in low-wage jobs without a ladder into the middle class. Entry-level jobs with on-the-job training or apprenticeships that pay have been replaced with entry-level jobs that require previous training, usually through expensive post-secondary education. Even with financial aid, there are many barriers to getting into and finishing college, ones that are especially difficult for low-income people to overcome. A possible solution is to revive apprenticeship programs by creating incentives for companies or sector-wide organizations to establish them. “We haven’t created nearly enough apprenticeship slots,” Lerman says. “In my opinion, a big part of that is the very weak government leadership in this field and the trivial amount of money that goes to it. Just look at Canada for example—it now has a higher absolute number of people in apprenticeships than we do, and they’re one-tenth of our workforce. So they have proportionally ten times the numbers and they provide support.”
Another way is to re-establish job-training programs at lower levels of education. In European countries like Germany, public-school students are sorted at young ages, 16 or younger, onto a college-bound track or a vocational track. That approach is not likely to work here. “There’s no politician in the world that will support that in the U.S. because it’s tracking,” Carnevale says. “It’s perceived as tracking by race and class.” Yet the past two decades have shown that middle- and upper-class students are still the most likely to achieve success in the system we have now, and that the higher-education system still discriminates against racial and ethnic minorities. “One of our basic strengths and one of our basic weaknesses is we cannot deal with the fact that by the time a kid is in eighth grade, usually for reasons that are not their fault, they’re not going to college, and they’re not going to graduate,” he says.
In 2011, Robert Schwartz, a researcher at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, released a report called “Pathways to Prosperity.” Schwartz outlined how students had only one real option for achieving success, and argued that a better way to help students get into middle-skill jobs would be to create a rejuvenated career- and technical-education high-school system that would prepare students for college and middle-skill careers at the same time. “The American system for preparing young people to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults is clearly badly broken,” Schwartz wrote in the report.