In my mind, as a teenager, there was never a backup plan: I was going to a four-year college, and I was going right away. Anything else would have felt like abject failure.
I’ll admit that my views were a bit extreme, but they weren’t created in a vacuum. Our society is constantly telling us that the only way to get ahead is to go to a university and get a bachelor’s degree, then perhaps a master’s or even a PhD.
There are other paths, and not only are other paths valid, it’s absolutely essential to a functioning society that people follow them. We have to change the narrative that says that the best way forward is a liberal arts education.
First, a clarification: when I say “liberal arts,” I mean any education in a four-year college or university, because they all employ the philosophy that well-roundedness is a vital part of higher education. And who’s to say that it’s not? I learned things in Psychology 101, and I learned a whole bunch in my Women in the Middle East seminar. For me personally, as an “undecided,” the first year or so of intros to everything was a feature, not a bug. An open mind is not, despite what a local church once wrote on its marquee, “a waste of space” (no, I’m not kidding—I could write a whole separate article on my college town’s local church).
But this kind of dabbling isn’t for everyone, nor are most students privileged enough to afford it. Shouldn’t there be an option for students who know what they want to do with their lives to just get on with it?
Of course, technical and vocational schools exist. I would never in a million years have gone to one, even if my true and undying passion in life had been styling hair or repairing cars, because I had been trained to see that path as the lesser path, only suitable for those who weren’t good enough for “real” college. I suspect I am not alone in this.
Post-college I grew to envy those who’d gone to beauty school or learned to weld and had already been employed for years making more money than I could conceive of. I worked office jobs, made coffee, bussed tables—and occasionally was lucky enough to land a job in my “field,” writing soul-suckingly boring copy for $10 an hour. Bussing tables paid better. Why had I gone to college?
Perhaps the point of a higher education ought not be how much money you’ll make when you’re done. But it is sold to us that way: the promise of a bright and prosperous future is the carrot that gets students to go deeply into debt to attain the education and the degree that goes along with it, both in liberal arts and in vocational programs. Meanwhile, American colleges continue to offer courses of study with few career options waiting at the end (Creative Writing MFA, anyone?), while we rely on immigrant labor, both skilled and unskilled, to drive this country.
There is no one best path for everyone, and there is no one best path for society. Much analysis focuses on which industries offer the best-paying jobs, with computer-based skills a current darling. But a world of only coders makes no more sense than a world of only philosophers or a world of only assembly line workers. We need lawyers and doctors and artists and writers (though perhaps not as many of some of these as are being produced) and also plumbers and roofers and farmers and auto mechanics and hairdressers and yes, even grocery baggers and fast-food burger-flippers.
It’s very popular right now to heap scorn on those in the latter sorts of jobs. “Why should a burger-flipper make a living wage?” someone with a “better” job asks. But if that person wants to eat hamburgers, someone must do the work of cooking it, and it would be nice, I think, if even that employee could afford to eat.
There’s also been a lot of talk lately about jobs disappearing. Victims of plant closures or automation are often told to retrain for “the jobs of the future,” which is on the surface a self-evident solution. But putting aside the difficulty of predicting the future, the fact remains that education of any kind is often prohibitively expensive, and this is doubly true for someone who has just been laid off.
So what is the solution? At the risk of sounding like a socialist, first we must level the playing field by making higher education affordable, or even free. Many first-world countries (like Norway) manage this, and it seems to have a positive impact on overall quality of life.
It’s also crucial that we stop assigning social status based on education level or career. A hairdresser friend noted recently that in demographics surveys the options for education level rarely include vocational education. She bristles because her post-high-school education is given no value. This is how great swathes of society feel about those who choose the non-college path, and that must change.
Third, we have to improve our primary and secondary education. One of the arguments for a liberal arts degree is that it teaches people to think critically and exposes them to a wide range of ideas. Isn’t this something that should be happening in high school? It’s now said that one needs a college education to get by in life—that college is the new high school. If that’s the case, let’s put the education one needs to get by in life back in high school where it belongs!
And finally (beware, more socialism), we must have a living wage for all jobs, across the board, period. Of course it’s reasonable for jobs requiring a higher education to pay more, but the bottom must come up. Every person who cannot make ends meet working full time is a person who isn’t living up to his or her full potential, and that hurts us all.
It doesn’t take an advanced degree to see that.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 10, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.