Source: Sprengeloo Technical School in Apeldoorn, Netherlands
Some of the Problems There is no question that tertiary education in the United States is cumbersome and stressful for students and the parents that raise them. In my opinion, higher education in this country has lost its way. I think the problem starts with our values. As a society, we have idealized college into a professional that “everyone must do” to be “successful” (i.e marketable to employers). This is the root of our higher education problems: we want to make the college experience into something other than it is. The way we view college is a natural outgrowth of a meritocracy gone wild. We live in a world in which an ever-expanding array of tasks require qualification. In some states you need an occupational license to legally work as a hairdresser, court reporter, or tree-trimmer. Simply put, our society is obsessed with bureaucratizing labor and professional work. Increasingly, Americans at the ripe old age of 18, are told to fund an expensive four year education (at least), obtain a degree upon completing said education, and then find a job with said degree. For some, this model works which is why it has been emulated by the society at large. However, more and more people realize the impracticality of this system. Inordinate numbers of college students drop out and of those that graduate do so with ever-increasing debt loads and increasingly slim job prospects. Too many people are funneling themselves to an undergraduate institution at, creating a demand for college that exceeds the capacity. This is only one of the reasons why college tuition costs are skyrocketing. What’s more, many to most of these new entrants lack have no strategy for achieving what they want to achieve from their education. This is because many eighteen year-olds lack the life perspective and self-knowledge to know what they really want from their life much less their education.
Source: The American Dream 2.0
The Solution In my view, encouraging a multiplicity of tracks for young high school graduates is the best way to improve higher education. For some, a vocational or apprenticeship route is the best option. Some people are just not academics and that’s ok. There should be no stigma attached to individuals who just won’t benefit from what an undergraduate education has to offer. Such students would be better served learning a particular professional skill at that point their lives. To upgrade our vocational education system, we need look no further than Germany. Their VET System provides students with approximately 350 different training programs. The training programs work on a dual apprenticeship system in which a student receives instruction from their trade school while receiving on-the-job training from a company in their field. These programs usually last 3 years or less, allowing an individual the flexibility to undergo other programs in the future or pursue higher education. In the hypothetical American version of this system, colleges and universities should seriously consider graduates of such programs who find that later in life, they want to pursue a more academic experience. Another great option which already exists, is the military to college route. Israel partially credits its mandatory IDF service for its thriving high-tech scene. For some, the discipline they gain from military service combined with the education grants they receive better prepare them for college. This pathway deserves more credit than it gets and it should be promoted more than it currently is. Reorganizing universities themselves can also provide go a long way. For one, traditional universities could become more open to accepting nontraditional students. Accepting people who’ve elected to take a gap year(s), undergo vocational training, or return to college can serve as a sort of self-selection in which the participants are more likely to know why they are going to college and how they are going to graduate. For those “traditional students”, they should be offered different routes. For those students who do not know exactly what field of study they want to major in, the first two undergraduate years should be spent pursuing a well-rounded liberal arts course of study. Such students should be given a set of distribution requirements that challenges them to take classes in a diverse range of disciplines. After those first two years, such students should be allowed to major and follow a more focused course of study. Those who know specifically that they want to purse further education in a particular field should be offered direct tracks. This means that students pursuing pre-engineering, pre-medical, pre-veterinarian, etc. tracks should be given extra leniency on the distribution requirements not directly related to their field of study. By eliminating superfluous classes, some of their courses could count toward their ultimate degree. Thus, a pre-med student could take some of the courses currently taught in medical school. This would allow medical schools, for example, to focus on teaching the hands-on training, people skills, and real-world skills that doctors need to be successful. Postgraduate institutions should still be open to undergraduates who decided after two years to pursue further education in a particular field. In order to make these different life paths viable, employers and all sorts of institutions of higher learning must become more accepting of people who seek to move between different tracks. Why can’t a thirty year old with advanced vocational training in welding be accepted into an M.B.A program? Why can’t a biology major who took a liberal arts course load for two years be accepted by a medical school? Hopefully, by diverting different types of people to different “life paths”, we can lower the cost of higher education, ensure the academic integrity of universities, and provide people with more a more effective means of personal improvement.