Oren Cass, whose new book, The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, is generating a long overdue discussion about the dignity of work in the modern world, has a must read piece in the New York Times.
Cass writes about two hypothetical high school students: one who has academic ability and one who doesn't have particular academic gifts.
One is likely to complete college; the other is not, even if he enrolls in college. Cass asks a question:
To whom does our education system owe what?
The college-bound student will have help lavished upon her. It will be possible for this student to obtain around $10,00 a year in public funds to go to college. U.S. spending on college funding has grown by 133 percent in the past 30 years.
Then there are tax breaks, loan subsidies and state-level funding that bring the annual federal outlay to give academic students the college experience to $150 billion. Some of that money goes added benefits such as state-of-the-art gyms or career counseling.
And what does the other student get?
Pretty much nothing. The annual federal spending for students who are going into vocational trainingor directly to work is $1 billion.
This discrepancy says a lot about our values. Cass writes:
One explanation for this bizarre state of affairs, in which society invests heavily in those headed for economic success while ignoring those falling behind, is the widespread belief that everyone can be a college graduate. If that were true, the shove toward the college pipeline might make sense.
More students fail to complete high school on time, more fail to move on from high school to college, and more drop out of college. Forty years of reform, accompanied by a doubling of per pupil spending, has failed to improve this picture.
Standardized test scores haven’t budged. SAT scores have declined. More students enroll in college, but the share of 25-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree did not increase from 1995 to 2015, and it stands barely above the 1975 level.
A second explanation is the widespread belief that a college diploma is a necessary and sufficient “ticket to the middle class.” If that were true, even a small chance at escaping the supposedly sad fate of inadequate education is better than ever admitting defeat.
One explanation given for the money we spend on those who will graduate from college is that grads earn more. So, one thread of logic might be, we are spending to make more Americans prosperous.
Cass notes that the median earnings of college grads are indeed higher than the median earnings of high school-only grad.
But that is not the whole story:
Look instead at the wage distributions for more comparable samples: those with earnings toward the high end for workers with only high school degrees and those at the low end among college graduates.
The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that high school grads with above-average earnings (50th to 90th percentile) earn $34,000 to $70,000 annually. College grads with below-average earnings (10th to 50th percentile) earn $28,000 to $58,000.
Pushing people from the former category to attend college and land in the latter category does them few favors. And remember, that assumes they graduate; people in their position typically will not.
Remember also, those are the outcomes before we attempt to create an attractive non-college pathway that they might prefer and that might equip them for success.
Cass proposes some interesting possibilities.
For example, the public spends around $100,000 to get a student through a four-year high school.
Why not try a two-year high school course coupled with a sophisticated vocational program, at an estimated savings of $25,000 per year.
It is important to remember that college is a "false promise" for some, who are nevertheless lured into undertaking enormous expenses to get there.
I'll just say one more thing: we want all citizens to have the cultural literacy to be good citizens.
We should also concentrate on improving our high schools so that kids can acquire this literacy in two years.
I have in my possession a treasured Young Ladies' School Book from 1859.
It is way above what kids in high school read today and a reminder that high school, whether two or four years in academic preparation, could give all students so much more.
That should be part of the discussion of giving more funding to kids who will not go onto college.