Thursday, July 14, 2011

Not Everyone Should Go to College

Once upon a time, before I accidentally became a computationalist, I was educated as a classical metallurgist. Consequently, I spent a decent amount of time in machine shops and foundries. I spent a summer working for Large Manufacturing Company, and spent a decent amount of time interacting with guys who didn't have a college degree, but knew more than I ever would about how machines work.  And while my parents are engineers, my mom's family and Mr. ME's family are mostly very blue-collar people. Not all of them have a college education, and several have degrees that have nothing to do with their careers. College wouldn't have gotten them where they wanted to go in life.

College gets more expensive every year (Mike the Mad Biologist has some lovely numbers here). The Chronicle of Higher Education asked the question "Are too many students going to college?" Most of the panelists seem to avoid the main question, but as academics, there's a certain amount they have invested in getting more students in the door. They focus on things like the wage premium. However, that wage premium is relative to all people without degrees. What about the difference between a bachelor's degree and trade school? I think the gap narrows dramatically then.

We need welders. We need plumbers, electricians, car mechanics, glassblowers. But we also need to stop telling every high school student that they should go to college. I had friends in high school, who were academically gifted, but knew that what they really, really wanted to do with their lives was fix things. They were lucky to have parents who supported that, and to live in a school district that had courses that would help them get their technical certification. There are some people who are not suited to a desk job. There are some people, who after 12 years in the US educational system, want to learn something practical, not theoretical. Why are we trying to convince them to go to college, an increasingly expensive proposition? Why is making money more important to our definition of success than being satisfied with your job? When did going into a trade stop being considered a good option?

This is also one of the things I love about the steampunk community. It's very much a maker's movement, with a strong appreciation from craftsmanship. Instead of throwing things away when they broke, building them well, and fixing them.  My college education has taught me a lot about thermodynamics and Newtonian physics, but that won't help me fix my car.


  1. I agree with this. But I think we have to be careful. Once we stop emphasizing college it tends to go back to being a place for only the children of the elite. Also well the re-focus on skill-oriented careers is commendable (and I would say too one reason why Germany stays successful) we have to make sure we have a long term view. Because I think too many people think if we had fewer college grads and more plumbers we'd be fine right now. But really we have a demand issue problem not a supply one. So in the long term we need to adjust, but it's a red herring for fixing current problems.

  2. I think that trade school should be included as part of the college discussion, not meant to replace it. High school guidance counselors spend a lot of time with students helping them find the college that's the "right fit". I'd like to see trade schools considered as a "right fit". It's certainly not a silver bullet, but I've met too many people who accumulated a lot of debt over several years of college due to parental pressure, before dropping out to take up a trade instead.