What College Means

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Mike Rustigan writes in the Los Angeles Times that it’s time to reconsider vocational training:

According to a growing number of demographers and labor experts, the U.S. soon will be experiencing a severe shortage of skilled workers. Blue-collar baby boomers are retiring, but schools aren’t preparing the next generation to take their place. Our nation needs blue- collar workers — skilled mechanics, machinists, welders, carpenters and electricians, as well as computer, solar and cable technicians, etc. — just as much as it needs college grads.

This is true, and Rustigan has a good point about the need for jobs training. The trouble comes when the author goes on to chastise Barak Obama for encouraging more Americans to go to college:

One repeated theme in President Obama’s education agenda is that he wants the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. As he put it in an address to a joint session of Congress, “We expect all our children not only to graduate from high school but to graduate from college and get a good-paying job.”

Although I applaud the president’s strong commitment to higher education, he is seriously neglecting the importance of vocational training in school.

Rustigan is missing the picture. That speech came as part of Obama’s American Graduation Initiative, which proposes to provide an additional $12 million in an effort to create an additional 5 million community college graduates by 2020.

In most of these community college programs the successful students study things like automotive technology or respiratory therapy. That is vocational education. Maybe it’s time to call it vocational education, but let’s stop pretending the Obama administration (or, as the author says “academic elites and politicians — both Democrats and Republicans “) is overselling college.

“College” does not always mean a B.A. in philosophy. Often college is used a word used by politicians and even journalists as shorthand for further training. Admittedly the U.S. could teach job skills more efficiently (many European countries’ high school trade tracks do a much better job preparing students for work than our community college programs) but saying everyone should go to college is not reflective of an impractical goal; college is about preparing everyone for a stable career.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer