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Postsecondary education: And who — who — will take the road less traveled by?

Four years prostrate to the higher mind isn’t right for everyone. Nod if you can hear me. Vigorously if you truly agree.

This Sunday Cover op-ed originally ran in the Star Tribune on June 2, 2019.

I have spent most of my professional life expressing ideas that cause people to shake their heads horizontally in disagreement rather than nodding vertically in approval. But I’ve seen abundant nodding in the last few years when talking about how large numbers of young Americans who are not terribly interested in attending a four-year college enroll in one anyway — pressured by parents, peers, teachers, school counselors, and the cultural, normative air they breathe.

More than occasionally, such young Americans wind up confirming their gut instinct that collegiate life was not for them and, sooner or later, drop out. From there, again more than occasionally, they find themselves unemployed or underemployed, in big-time student debt, proverbially living in their parents’ basement and quite possibly feeling like failures. (Cue almost everybody nodding up and down.)

Cratered paths like these, I go on, routinely obstruct timely entry into middle-class jobs. And these are often needless delays and losses, because other educational and career routes are primed to serve millions of young men and women, especially those who like working with their hands or are technically inclined. Their taking advantage of these paths would also simultaneously enrich our economy, particularly since thousands of well-trained baby boomers retire every day. (Cue more nodding north and south.)

I’ve never dealt with a vital issue where consensus is so strong — and where party affiliation and political philosophy are so irrelevant — as is the case here. Which begs many questions, starting with why the bias on behalf of four-year degrees is so strong in the U.S. in the first place.

A partial listing of reasons might begin with spectacles. But before looking into that, what kinds of jobs (1) generally don’t call for a four-year degree, (2) still require postsecondary training of some kind and (3) pay reasonably well? Such jobs are often referred to as “middle-skill jobs,” even though practitioners are often superbly skilled.

An assertion I often cite comes from Matthew B. Crawford, who runs a high-end motorcycle repair shop as well as holding a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago. Interesting fellow. In a distinctively excellent book, “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” he contends (I paraphrase) that it takes more cognitive firepower to figure out what’s wrong with an engine, then fix it, than it does to perform lots of chores done in cubicles. I haven’t found anyone who disagrees.

Here’s an abbreviated, alphabetical recitation of occupations, through the letter “e” (leaving 21 letters, and jobs like Marco Rubio’s celebrated welding, still to go).

Air ambulance paramedics; aircraft mechanics, artisans who hand-craft high-end furniture; auto technicians; builders of complex gas turbine generators; carpenters; cardiovascular technologists; chefs, cement masons and concrete finishers; computer support specialists; construction workers; correctional officers; decorators; dental hygienists; electricians; and entrepreneurs who run their own photography studios.

When it comes to educational routes, the core four are apprenticeships; one-year and two-year certificate programs; associate degrees (especially the associate in applied science, or A.A.S. kind), and job training in the military.

Now let’s return to spectacles. Sandra Kresbach is executive director of the American Technical Education Association. In an interview for a new book of mine, “Education Roads Less Traveled,” she talked about how most people are unaware of the key role played by technical education in research and development. I asked her to tie that blindness to the county’s preoccupation with four-year degrees as opposed to other types of postsecondary education.

Part of the problem, Kresbach said, is that so much pageantry surrounds college life. The sports teams, the mascots, the tradition, the huge campus life, while “technical education is very focused on what students are learning, on skill sets, on various industries, on jobs. It’s very hard for school counselors, for the media, for parents, for others to get a handle on what the lives of students in technical education are like.”

Kresbach got me thinking back to how I perceived — or, more accurately, dreamed about — American higher education when I first started doing so as a teen. Think elbow-patched tweed jackets, Big Games and Big Dances, with erudite conversation in between. Where might I have picked up romantic notions like those? David J. Weerts and Gwendolyn H. Freed of the University of Minnesota, and Christopher C. Morphew, now at Johns Hopkins, have written fascinatingly about how popular media, going back generations, have played a defining role in creating the “collegiate ideal.”

“The national preoccupation with college was initially stoked by colleges themselves, but soon thereafter, college mania was manufactured for mass consumption by people and entities outside of higher education,” they write. “Madison Avenue copywriters, Hollywood film producers, radio personalities, and New York literary agents were among those painting a picture of college life that was at once glamorous, manly and madcap.”

Another source of four-year bias is the clichéd conventional wisdom: “To get a good job you need a good education.” While the advice would seem to apply just as readily to sophisticated, non-four-training for a wide range of jobs, the likely interpretation is that a “good education” means a baccalaureate degree.

On hearing this advice, people rightly assume that those with bachelor’s degree make more money, on average. They don’t often focus on how there is significant overlap in compensation among job categories.

Or, as an interviewee put it, “Talented plumbers generally make more money than mediocre bureaucrats.”

An additional source of four-year bias has been the pointed drive, starting more than a half-century ago now, to greatly increase the college enrollment of students of color. I started at Binghamton University as a sophomore in the fall of 1967, when enrollment there was about 2,700. I don’t think more than 10 students were African-American. Seven months later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, which, among a great many other things, highlighted the moral and political unacceptability of having African-American young people constitute far less than 1 percent of enrollment at a public university in a state like New York. Similar dynamics and aspirations continue to play out across the country.

Finally, there is the common, near-instinctive view on the part of parents that while it’s silly to think all young people should aim for a four-year degree, the insight doesn’t apply to their children. A 2010 Gallup poll found 92% of parents saying their own children would, in fact, go to college. It’s fair to assume most moms and dads were thinking of four-year rather than two-year schools.

For context, only about 35% of Americans actually wind up with a four-year degree.

Note: I haven’t said anything about how the GI Bill support for four-year college initiated and propelled much of this assumption that it’s for everyone. A big omission.

Meanwhile, of course, plenty has been written and spoken in recent years about how more young people should consider pursuing certificates and A.A.S. degrees, enabling them to move quickly into solid technical jobs that benefit the economy, too. The number of programs across the country working to interest high school students in advanced manufacturing, construction, health care, IT and other fields is surprisingly large and growing, involving educators, business leaders, union officials and others.

Here in Minnesota, varied efforts include the Central Minnesota Manufacturing Association (CMMA) in and around St. Cloud, Business Education Networks in Winona, and AchieveMPLS — as well as the Center of the American Experiment’s project, “Great Jobs Without a Four Year Degree.”

Still, what do national numbers say about actual student choices?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of certificates awarded below the level of associate degrees in the U.S. grew by almost 500,000 between 2001 and 2011, but they fell by almost 100,000 between 2011 and 2015.

The number of associate degrees awarded grew by approximately 365,000 between 2001 and 2011, but they grew by only about 65,000 between 2011 and 2016.

This is the opposite of a surge. How to improve matters?

One idea is for teachers, principals and parents, when high school seniors announce what they’re doing next and where, to celebrate admission to distinguished universities, invaluable community colleges, and military service with equal enthusiasm and congratulations.

Granted, I don’t expect this to happen in my lifetime, but we should strive toward it.

Here’s another idea, possibly the most potent: Taking far greater advantage of social media in making the case made here — but with a proviso.

When it comes to picking platforms and figuring out what they should say and show, it would be wise to leave such tasks to the real professionals in the sphere. Meaning, men and women under 25 who reign in a digital culture that ranges from obscure to indecipherable to most anyone on the cusp of gray, much less actually gray.

Mitch Pearlstein is founder of the Center of the American Experiment. His newest book, “Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees,” was released in April.

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