Column | Feb. 6

Many people shouldn't go to college

It’s time for a large number of Americans to hear what might seem like a harsh message: A degree from a four-year university might not be for you. Popular culture would cast this frank assessment as elitist. But that’s a toxic myth that needs to vanish because the stakes are too high. A new study by Young Invincibles, a think tank geared toward issues facing young Americans, estimates that high youth unemployment costs the government about $25 billion in lost tax revenue. All the while, there are three million jobs that employers can’t fill because too many workers lack the requisite skills.

Policymakers and university administrators have admirably worked to expand access to college over the past several decades. In terms of enrollment rates, their efforts have been successful — matriculation increased by thirty seven percent between 2000 and 2010. So, the good news is that we’re getting young adults on campus. But we are profoundly failing them as a country after that; America’s graduation rate sits at an abysmal 53 percent, including community colleges. This disparity betrays a critical disconnect, one not discussed often enough — that a large swath of those lured to college should never have attended.

Seemingly insurmountable odds work against the typical young American. A college graduate today has to contend with an average of nearly $30,000 in student loan debt. The overall jobless rate for those between sixteen and twenty four is fifteen percent, more than double the national average. That said, the reality is that a large number of college students have no business being at four year universities.

American culture aggressively pushes the college experience and dismisses skeptics as snobs. Master plumbers, for example, make roughly between $50,000 — approximately the national average — and $80,000 a year. So why is it considered so wrong to encourage people to pursue the profession, or another like it, instead of a college degree? One path all but ensures a life in the middle class; for far too many, the other only guarantees crushing debt and no degree.

Relentlessly playing up the importance of a degree from a four-year university perpetuates an ironic snobbery. Those who emphasize the importance of a four-year degree often do so to the detriment of other paths to a prosperous life. We blindly push people toward college without considering if it’s actually the best option for the individual student. Meanwhile, community colleges and vocational schools, two phenomenal avenues to the middle class, are ignored. Advocates of college for all have created a culture that shuns people’s choices to pursue anything else.

These destructive cultural attitudes manifest in government policy. States simply do not prioritize community colleges. “Between 1999 and 2009, community college funding increased just one dollar per student, while per-student funding at private research universities jumped almost $14,000,” write Eduardo Padron and Anthony Marx in US News and World Report. Large universities will obviously require more money overall to function, but the disparity in need can’t be that great. Government investment in community colleges is a sound one; an associate’s degree is a low-cost, high-reward chance at higher education and a better life.

Other countries have already figured out that pushing every citizen into a four-year university is unproductive. Germany’s youth unemployment rate is 7.8 percent, while 5.1 percent of Germans overall are out of work. A huge secret to Germany’s success lies in its emphasis on apprenticeships. Students there have the option to apply directly to employers for training contracts starting at 16 years old. The program harnesses free market demand to meet employers’ needs. There’s no ludicrous stigma surrounding the process because people have seen that it works. The country is Europe’s economic engine partially because of the program’s success.

The disparity between U.S. college enrollment and graduation rates is too vast to ignore. The fact is that, for many, college just isn’t the best investment. Political correctness is toxic and indulgent. It’s self-righteous censorship that too often harms the people it claims to help. The perpetual fear to encourage millennials to pursue anything other than a four-year degree hurts those very young adults. This timidity prevents advocacy for critical issues like funding for apprenticeships and community colleges. In this seemingly jobless economic recovery, one thing I won’t tolerate is continuing to leave young Americans behind.

David Will is a religion major from Chevy Chase, Md. He can be reached at dwill@princeton.edu.

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