Late last year, Joe Biden (or one of his joyless staff members) tweeted that “In the 21st century, twelve years of school isn’t enough. That’s why under the Biden-Harris plan, community college will be free—and public colleges and universities will be tuition-free for families earning less than $125,000 a year.” This echoed the sentiment that Barack Obama often signaled in his State of the Union speeches: that to compete in our complex, dynamic global marketplace, our kids need more years in school—along with longer school years, unhindered by summer vacations that are a mere relic of our agrarian past. This was often buttressed by geopolitical concerns around the years of schooling required of children abroad, along with their rankings on math and science tests.
Whenever I hear this I yell: “LAME!” You already took recess away from so many kids, now you want to gut their vacation time too? Ridiculous. If you want to redistribute that time to create longer breaks elsewhere (e.g., a few weeks in the holidays, maybe a longer spring break), that’s fine. But people do much, if not most, of their actual learning outside the classroom: hanging out with friends, spending time with family, being outdoors, and reading books they actually want to read. It’d be wrong to rob kids of these things.
And why should we care so much about international education rankings? Take the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for example. The results of these tests—administered to 15-year-olds to measure their performance in reading, math and science—often make for great headlines to scold American kids. The resulting flurry of articles will feed into the hyperbolic narrative that “we’re falling behind” and “the world is laughing at us!” And yet, when you bother to read the articles, they’ll concede, “Most countries saw virtually no improvement in the performance of their students since the test was first administered in 2000.” Some crisis.
We send way too many people to college. A high school degree should be enough to live a dignified, economically stable life. The idea that everyone must go to college is a fiction we created as an easy sorting mechanism that benefits rich and upper-middle class families at the expense of the less fortunate.
Up until the early-2000s, we could get away with creating these artificial barriers, as there was still enough manufacturing employment to provide working and middle class people with some options outside of low-wage retail and food service. But that’s not the case anymore. We went from around 17 million people employed in manufacturing in 2000 to about 11 million at the sector’s nadir in 2010, crawling back very slowly since then. Sure, real output tells a different story, but that’s cold comfort for millions of Americans who don’t have even $400 to spend in case of an emergency.
Ideally, we’d get some policies in place to change this. But for the moment, if we’re going to be a service-heavy “knowledge” economy, we need to do the right thing. Roughly two-thirds of Americans over 25 don’t have a college degree. They should be able to live, work and do well for themselves, with plenty of good options to do so. Sending them back to school to incur mountains of debt and grind through irrelevant coursework isn’t the answer. This would only further devalue the worth of associate and bachelor’s degrees, which are already under strain.
We should lower our educational standards for entry-level jobs to a high school diploma. If young applicants show particular aptitude or excellence in a specific area, some mid-level jobs should be open to them as well. Recall that well-worn phrase told to many nervous college grads: “Don’t worry about your major, it doesn’t really matter. Most companies will train you on the job.” If the major doesn’t matter, then why should having a degree matter at all?
This should apply to the majority of white-collar office jobs: sales, marketing, advertising, human resources, claims, journalism, customer service, data entry, and any type of administrative or executive assistant work. Some basic IT roles (e.g., helpdesk support) would be a great option as well. In my experience watching and interacting with people in these roles, there’s very little about them that says “Yes, they needed college for this.”
Some of these fields move and change faster than academic departments. College may do more harm than good in this case. If you entered business school in 2010 to study marketing, for example, you may have landed an entry-level position in 2015 with an outdated view of your profession, and a lot of debt. Whereas if you got the job at 18 or 19, you’d have benefited from those years of experience, and be up-to-speed on the latest technologies, tactics and trends affecting your industry. You’d also have a few more years to start building your lifetime earnings potential.
On the other hand, if you like working retail, bartending, delivering food or answering phones, that’s fine. We shouldn’t stigmatize this kind of work for those who like it. You may ask, “Well, why stop there? Why require a high school degree at all?” Although I’m not an education expert, and people like Freddie DeBoer have written about this more extensively, I don’t think middle school is enough. Eighteen-year-olds tend to be hormonal and impulsive, but they’re still adults who’ve been historically capable of entering the workforce. You can’t, in good conscience, say the same for 14-year-olds. Teenagers should still be in the school system to better hone their knowledge of the world and grow up before being unleashed on it.
The answer isn’t to send everyone to college; make high school better. This extends to federal investments in education, which could be reallocated to struggling school districts that can’t upgrade their buildings or buy new textbooks. It’d also preclude the need to initiate a massive spending program for free college. This may create downward pressure on demand as well, thus putting downward pressure on tuition prices.
I’ll give Biden this: he may have a narrow point about 12 years not being enough. To help strengthen the value of high school, we could try adding an “in-depth” fifth year. For that final year, students will have a “core” of classes focused on their vocational or intellectual interests, along with a “periphery” of required courses we often associate with a “well-rounded” liberal arts education—graded on a pass/fail basis.
In the 2012 presidential race, Republican Rick Santorum once clumsily chided Obama for thinking everyone should go to college: “What a snob!” He was lambasted by the liberal press at the time, and had misstated Obama’s own position on the matter. But while his comment might not have applied to Obama, strictly speaking, he did stumble into a straw man that should be cut down.