Great jobs without a four-year degree

Why do so many Minnesotans agree with the project’s goal so eagerly?

Editor’s Note: Center of the American Experiment successfully launched its new initiative, “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree: Good News for Students, Parents, and Employers,” at a program keynoted by American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt, author of the seminal 2016 book, Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis, at the Minnesota History Center, in St. Paul, on April 19. Working closely with President John Hinderaker, the project is headed by Founder Mitch Pearlstein and Senior Fellow Katherine Kersten. All three start from the premise that an enormous amount of vitally important activity is already underway throughout Minnesota when it comes to informing young men and women about satisfying and lucrative opportunities in the trades and other fields. Mitch, for example, frequently talks and writes about the need for an “overarching narrative” that ties all this excellent work together, while Kathy regularly focuses on the need for a “repository of success stories” from all corners of the state. These two goals and much more are what they and their American Experiment colleagues will continue pursuing for at least the next couple of years.

When speaking either to lone individuals or large groups about American Experiment’s multi-year project “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree,” I usually begin by noting that there are a lot of young people who truly aren’t enthused about seeking a four-year college degree, but because they feel pressured to do so by combinations of parents, peers, educators, the media, and the culture more generally, they wind up enrolling nonetheless. And then, as one might perfectly expect, many do poorly, drop out, and end up either underemployed or unemployed, frequently in serious debt.

Routinely, and well before I finish this brief recitation, many of the people I’m speaking with start moving their heads up and down in knowing agreement. Right away they make it physically clear that they agree with my Center colleagues and me that the deeply entrenched cultural assumption of the last two generations that just about everybody should aspire to a baccalaureate degree is neither a sound idea nor fair spur.

I learned a long time ago from a senior diplomat that when a variety of people, somehow, come to agreement on a tough issue it’s usually not wise to probe exactly why they do so, as it’s much more prudent to simply say thank you and move on to the next contentious problem. But let me pry here nonetheless. Or more specifically, permit me to speculate about what some of the reasons may be as to why so many people are enthusiastically nodding in my direction.

The obvious first answer is that they want what’s best for their son or daughter, even if it runs counter to what everybody seems to think new high school graduates are supposed to do. Perhaps the people I’m meeting with recognize that their teenager has less than his or her whole heart in laboring towards a four-year degree, and that he or she would be happier pursuing a different route.

Related to this, and given what may have been their child’s weak academic performance heretofore, perhaps they soberly recognize that his or her chances
of earning a B.A. are slim. Backing this up are findings by an American sociologist, James E. Rosenbaum, who wrote in 2011 for instance, that a remarkable (or not so remarkable) 80 percent of “low-achieving seniors who plan degrees” have an 80 percent failure rate.

A British sociologist, John Jerrim, reinforced this finding in 2014 when he wrote, based on international comparisons, that “American teenagers are less realistic about their prospects of obtaining a bachelor’s degree than young people in most other developed countries.”

Many additional people may nod principally because they have high respect for apprenticeships, community colleges, one-year and two-year certificate programs in both public and private postsecondary institutions, and job training in the military. Once again, my American Experiment colleagues and I concur.

A few days before writing the words above I visited the Staples campuses of Central Lakes College and was particularly impressed by the two-year school’s four-semester program in Heavy Equipment Operations and Maintenance, which describes itself as a “unique, one of a kind” program in Minnesota State, the still-new name for what was formerly known as MnSCU. Among other things, students learn to build roadways, lay pipe, and demolish buildings to make way for “a new sports facility, office building, or shopping center.” They’ll do these things by learning “how to operate dozers, elevators, motor graders, loaders . . . and haul trucks.” This is precisely the kind of alternative educational route that more young people and their parents need to know about.

In a similar vein, many parents and others know that many young people are talented, frequently brilliantly so, when it comes to working with their hands and believe they would be happier as well as more successful if they followed that muse.

Personally, just about the only things I do with my hands are type and eat, but I very much resonate to what Matthew Crawford writes in his invaluable 2009 book, Shop Class to Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. Here’s an on-target and pointed thought: “‘[D]oing’ blue-collar things such as plumbing and fixing engines regularly requires more actual ‘thinking,’ more cognitive firepower than do many white- collar jobs.”

Crawford, who both fixes high-end motorcycles and holds a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, also writes: “Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level ‘creative.’”

Further reasons for fiscal nods pertain to debt, both the kind that college students are picking up as well as the kind parents are acquiring, often by dipping deeply into their retirement savings. One person I’ve spoken to about Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree is a former college president who plausibly argues that a large reason why growing numbers of people are wondering about the economic returns on college investments is the growing degree to which tuition rates are other worldly and hard to fathom. Kathy Kersten reports that average debt for Minnesota students attending four-year institutions is almost $32,000.

Animated by broader economic concerns, some heads presumably go up and down in astute recognition that if Minnesota businesses are to prosper and remain in the state, they need highly trained people in all fields, including those that don’t require a four- year degree. By pleasant coincidence once more, a day before I wrote this paragraph, Star Tribune reporters Dee DePass and Catherine Roberts, in a business section article titled “Wanted Skilled Hands, Minds,” wrote:

“If trends continue, by mid-2018, there will be more jobs [in Minnesota] than people looking for them. As a result, finding enough high-skilledworkers as baby boomers retire and the labor force shrinks will be among the top issues that face Minnesota’s biggest companies in coming years. Already, economic growth in the state is barely keeping up with the national average. Economists, policymakers and companies worry that a workforce shortage will further curtail company investments in Minnesota.”

And surely, many people nod even before I say terribly much because they’re rightfully angered by the way in which politically correct radicalisms and absurdities—starting with violently chasing away superb scholars and good friends such as Charles Murray —are corrupting much of American higher education. My late doctoral adviser used to say that such students and sometimes faculty and staff were “defecating in the temple,” not that he necessarily used the word “defecate.”

A final point. I would like to think that not too many people motor their heads up and down out of lack of fondness for the liberal arts, especially the humanities. Yet having said that, I’m among the first to acknowledge that losses of respect and confidence in them are often justified, especially in fields of study where words and ideas such as “deconstructionism” are endowed and embedded.

To be frank, a caution I have about Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree is that it will be conceived by some as being uninterested in whether young men and women ever read great or semi-great books, or ponder iconic paintings, as part of their post-secondary lives. This, as my late diplomat might say, would be “unfortunate.”

How to overcome? Intellectual self-interest has a self-starting key, with Amazon, Google, and scores of other Internet sites complementarily miraculous.