In a post titled, “We Need Both Plumbers and English Majors,” Kevin Drum suggests that Rick Santorum may have a point in criticizing the Obama administration’s focus on helping more people earn post-secondary credentials:

The detracking movement did a lot to undermine vocational education, and people like Bill Gates and others have since been influential boosters of the idea that everyone should go to college. But I’m with Dana [Goldstein] and the Ricks [Santorum and Perlstein]: not everyone either can or wants to go to college. We never needed to destroy the village in order to save it, and there are ways of addressing the ills of tracking without losing its benefits at the same time. American high schools ought to be as good at turning out plumbers as they are at turning out future English majors.

I think Kevin’s critique is off-base and a lot of this comes down to confusion between the terms “college” and “post-secondary education.” The kind of people who write blogs and columns for a living tend to experience traditional higher education, i.e. “college” — a four-year residential experience leading to a bachelor’s degree in one of the liberal arts. So when they read that someone is pushing a “college for all” agenda or even “college for many more,” their instinct is to reject the idea on the grounds that not everyone is willing or able to earn the kind of degree that they themselves have obtained.

Which is true. Which is also why absolutely nobody has suggested that everyone should get a traditional college degree. What they have suggested is that success in the modern economy increasingly requires some kind of post-secondary credential. This is a case where the phrase “post-secondary education” isn’t just a matter of bureaucrats and policy wonks using three words when one will do–it has an actual distinct meaning.

“College” is one kind of post-secondary education, but so are lots of other things. Which is why, when President Obama laid out an agenda that Rick Santorum (B.A. in political science, Pennsylvania State University, 1980; Master of Business Administration, University of Pittsburgh, 1981; J.D., Dickinson School of Law, 1986) criticized as elitist snobbery, he called for “every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be a community college or a four-year school, vocational training or an apprenticeship.”

What might he mean by “vocational training or an apprenticeship”? Here’s what the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, has to say under “Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement” for the job category of “Plumbers, Pipelayers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters” (emphasis added):

Most plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters train on the job through jointly administered apprenticeships and in career or technical schools or community colleges.

Education and training. Plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters enter into the occupation in a variety of ways. Most plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters get their training in jointly administered apprenticeships or in technical schools and community colleges. Pipelayers typically receive their training on the job.

Apprenticeship programs generally provide the most comprehensive training available for these jobs. Such programs are, for the most part, administered jointly by union locals and their affiliated companies or by nonunion contractor organizations. Organizations that sponsor apprenticeships include the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada; local employers of either the Mechanical Contractors Association of America or the National Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors; a union associated with a member of the National Fire Sprinkler Association; the Associated Builders and Contractors; the National Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors; the American Fire Sprinkler Association; and the Home Builders Institute of the National Association of Home Builders.

Apprenticeships—both union and nonunion—consist of 4 or 5 years of paid on-the-job training and at least 144 hours of related classroom instruction per year. Classroom subjects include drafting and blueprint reading, mathematics, applied physics and chemistry, safety, and local plumbing codes and regulations. On the job, apprentices first learn basic skills, such as identifying grades and types of pipe, using the tools of the trade, and unloading materials safely. As apprentices gain experience, they learn how to work with various types of pipe and how to install different piping systems and plumbing fixtures. Apprenticeship gives trainees a thorough knowledge of all aspects of the trade. Although most plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters are trained through apprenticeships, some still learn their skills informally on the job or by taking classes on their own.

In other words, we can’t simply rely on America’s high schools to “turn out plumbers” through a renewed focus on secondary vocational education, because actually training someone to be a plumber requires a lot more in the way of on-the-job training and additional formal education. America needs both plumbers and English majors and both require post-secondary education.

[Cross-posted at The Quick & the Ed]

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Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America.