The educational road less taken

CAE Founder Pearlstein will chair new effort to emphasize educational opportunities outside the traditional four-year degree

American colleges and universities are the envy of the world. Still, many young people really don’t want to spend a minimum of four years in one of them yet believe that doing so is their only route for eventually winning good-paying jobs. Often feeling pressured to enroll despite their doubts, they frequently wind up dropping out and, not incidentally, in debt.

This is bad and expensive news all around. Young people need to know that four-year degrees are not the only routes to good jobs and solid middle-class careers, as there are vital educational alternatives. This is especially true for men and women who enjoy working with their hands.

Energetically making the case for these options and significantly increasing the number of Minnesotans taking advantage of them is the aim of a soon-to-be-announced Center initiative tentatively titled “Overlooked Educational Routes to Thriving Careers: A Project to Help Young Minnesotans Win Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree.” American Experiment Founder Mitch Pearlstein will lead it.

The project will involve a wide range of individuals in both the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota: business and labor leaders, education and government leaders, and nonprofit leaders, among other players. In early conversations, all have expressed strong enthusiasm. Also prompting what is regularly full-throated support is the project’s aim to help employers find and hire enough well-trained employees so that their firms can grow, preferably in Minnesota.

Critical to succeeding is recognizing that America’s very culture puts too much emphasis on four-year degrees, as too many people – especially parents – assume they are near-exclusive routes to success. They are not. Society’s emphasis on baccalaureate degrees as gateways to good careers is overdone, and it would be to everyone’s benefit if more young people were to take greater advantage of underappreciated routes to good lives for themselves and their families.

Apprenticeships, for example are one such path, as they afford young people opportunities to acquire highly valued and satisfying skills and get paid in the process. Think, likewise, of certificate programs, two-year technical degrees, job training in the armed forces, post-baccalaureate vocational, and artisanal training, among other routes. In so doing, envision the many men and women who would prefer making their lives in the crafts, or in technical fields.

One of the biggest obstacles to significant growth in these kinds of educational options has less to do with questions of policy and bureaucracies and more to do with matters of culture and attitudes. In addition to biases in favor of four-year degrees, they include deep-rooted— sometimes fair, sometimes unfair—biases against vocational education, career education, or anything that hints of them.

More specifically is recognition that many such programs historically have been intended more for lower-income students than the sons and daughters of more affluent parents, which is to say, “rich kids”—and, not incidentally, white kids—for whom four-year college experiences are routinely the only acceptable feeder roads to good careers and lives.

To be clear, the project will never urge or seek to persuade any young person to participate in any educational program of which they or their parents do not want to be a part. Similarly, it never will dissuade people from going to college, if college is their dream.

Equally clear is how this new American Experiment endeavor will be a collaboration of a wide spectrum of participants and supporters, making for a broad and lasting coalition that encompasses not just the Twin Cities but every corner of Minnesota.