As an American high school student, I have increasingly felt the pressures of college. Words and phrases like SATs, summer camps, 4.0 GPA, APs, and Honor classes are thrown around as if they truly belong in everyday conversations. I have seen how stress over being accepted into a good college draws severe dark circles under and deadens the eyes of particularly sensitive students. At the same time, our radios hum with news about the low percentages of college graduates and the heavy weight of student loan debt in America, an incongruity that challenges traditional views that college is a necessary socio-economic stabilizer. As a culture, America strongly identifies success with college degrees; to many, college represents the most obvious gateway to financial success, a better quality of life, and overall happiness. Furthermore, Presidents and other government officials have increasingly focused their public agendas on raising college attendance rates in an attempt to end poverty. However, is sending more and more students to college the right way to end poverty and raise the quality of life for the majority of Americans?
As of 2016, Americans owe $1.3 trillion in student loans (Dynarski). Yet, only about 65.9% of Americans go to college. However, of that percentage only about 46% of Americans complete college after they have started; the remaining 54%-- those who start, but never finish-- not only do not walk away with a college degree and are faced with little well-paying job opportunities, but they are riddled with, at times, crippling debt, as well (Carlozo). Most of these students drop out because of financial difficulty and the challenges of keeping up with their fellow peers, who are better prepared. Clearly, our system of pushing students, particularly those from a lower socio-economic status, to go to college is not working. In fact, low-income students are seriously disadvantaged already; there is no need to increase their financial burdens. They often have the worst of the worst. Because local public education institutions depend on funds from local taxpayers, low-income neighborhoods often receive bad teachers and minimal resources. Not to mention, they probably do not have enough resources and time to help them through SATs, college planning, extracurricular activities and general academic work. So, not only do they have to try to find the necessary funds for their post-secondary education, they often feel severely unprepared in college, leading many to dropout. As college tuitions continue to rise, low-income students are not the only ones receiving the short end of the stick. Now, even many middle-class students, who are often caught in the sweet spot where they are too poor to pay college tuition, but too rich to receive enough financial aid, are in a crisis.
However, even while people without a college degree are struggling to find jobs, many well-paying jobs which do not require college degrees, are unfilled. As a matter of fact, 9.3 million Americans are without jobs, while 4.8 million jobs are available-- none of these jobs require a bachelor degree (Jacoby). Yet, the annual median salary of many of these jobs is considerably greater than the annual median salaries of fast food workers and other typical low-paying jobs. A nuclear power reactor operator, for example, only needs a high school diploma and has a median annual salary of $74, 990 (Agsaoay). If filled, these jobs would significantly help many struggling individuals, but employers are having trouble finding the people with the necessary experience and knowledge. Not to mention, there are also many jobs that only require a two year Associate’s degree, which might not be needed if the knowledge and skill are already taught in school.
These problems can be easily solved by vocational tracks, which could include apprenticeships, through middle and high school. Vocational tracks would teach the necessary knowledge of whatever job or field the students choose. Afterwards, apprenticeships could reinforce the knowledge learned in class through hands-on work. Then, the new young workers entering the job field would have more specialized work experience and knowledge and the employers would benefit from having skilled workers. Higher annual salaries for those who choose the vocational track would also help heal the dying middle class, the backbone of America, and close the gap between the wealthy and the poor.
Opponents of vocational tracks often argue that vocational classes and apprenticeships would create or increase student-tracking, discrimination, bullying, and the avoidance of hard work. They argue that if America were to follow in the footsteps of many European countries, students would have to be tracked, which would destroy the American values of liberty and equality; the decisions of who stays on the academic track and who goes to the vocational track could be greatly influenced by racism and other discriminatory factors. Also, those who go into vocational tracks might be perceived as “dumb” and intellectually less capable than their peers, which might lead to bullying and low self-esteem. Furthermore, detractors argue that if students were given the privilege of deciding whether or not they wanted to pursue the vocational track, hard work would be discouraged. They insist that if students were faced with any hardships in the academic track, they could just give up and switch to a vocational track, rather than pushing themselves to improve their mind.
However, America does not have to follow the steps of European countries. We are a powerful country that can modify the education system with vocational tracks to fit our unique values and system. For example, deciding whether or not to pursue the vocational track could be the student’s decision, not the teachers or other faculty members, which would eliminate the concerns about tracking and discrimination. As for the fear of bullying, the vocational track should not be introduced to the public as a repository for the less intelligent and lazy individuals; it should be introduced as a track that encourages hard work and the development of talent in specific areas. In other words, the vocational track is not the easy way out. It would be a track that arguably requires as much work, responsibility, and talent as the academic path. Furthermore, the implementation of dual academic and vocational track during the middle school years would help students realize the benefits of both tracks and decide later on which track suits them the best.
We Americans pride ourselves in living in the richest country in the world. However, our median income is no longer the highest globally, putting us behind Canada and most of Europe. Our poor earns less than the average poverty-stricken person in Europe and Canada (Leonhardt and Quealy). In fact, only a handful of people in America-- the infamous one percent-- are holding most of the money. Unfortunately, our income disparities between the rich and the poor have led us to point the accusing finger at foreigners for taking our jobs. We blame China, Mexico, India, and the companies which have factories there, using them as our scapegoats.
However, student loans, poverty, and a shrinking middle class could be alleviated by vocational tracks. The countries that we blame all have some sort of vocational track installed into their school systems. Mexico, for example, even has special vocational training programs in many universities for those who wish to complete their education, while ensuring that they will come out prepared for a job in a particular field. Their choices have made their workers more skilled than us Americans. Instead of blaming others, we can look at why our system is failing. In the chase for the American dream, many people have gone astray onto debt-ridden and often unfinished paths; in other words, college is not the right option for many. The vocational track is a way to end the epidemic of college dropouts and student debt-- it is the real opening to the American dream.
Quealy, David Leonhardt and Kevin. "The American Middle Class Is No Longer the World's
Richest." The New York Times. The New York Times, 22 Apr. 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
Jacoby, Tamar. "Why Germany Is So Much Better at Training Its Workers." The Atlantic.
Atlantic Media Company, 16 Oct. 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
"20 High-Paying Jobs That Don’t Require A College Degree." Lifehack. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Mar.
Carlozo, Lou. "Why College Students Stop Short of a Degree." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 27
Mar. 2012. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
Dynarski, Susan. "America Can Fix Its Student Loan Crisis. Just Ask Australia." The New York Times. The New York Times, 09 July 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.