Not Everyone Needs to Go To College

It’s wrong, and possibly dangerous, to just make college free for anyone who wants it.

Wow. If I was a politician, I’d get attacked for that. But that’s totally how I see it. As we move into political sniping season more and more focus will get put on candidate spending plans. Several have said they want to make college free. Boy, that sounds good. Who doesn’t like free? One plan talks about abolishing student loan debt. Which, admitedly, is crushing a whole generation who bought into the same notion I’m talking about now: that going to college is a necessarily good thing.

Maybe not. Maybe not for everyone.

I’m a huge believer in education, and my son is about to head off to college (Colorado Boulder, in Aerospace Engineering). There’s a lot of thing you HAVE to college for: nursing, medicine, engineering, law, teaching, etc. There’s a lot of huge value in getting a degree, especially if you are going to go into management or work in many analytical fields. But everyone? If EVERYONE goes to college, who builds houses? Who installs the electrical system? Who build the sheet metal ducts for your air conditioning?

The Trades. Somehow we as a nation have built this cultural belief that success=college, but there’s a lot of plumbers and carpenters out there that are damn successful. And where would we be without them? Crapping in an outhouse probably. In the dark. Seriously.

Just think about it. Not everyone is going to have a net rise in income because they got a degree. Especially if that degree is not in an area that maps directly to a job category. There’s only so many jobs for the skill set of a sociology degree. Or history. My wife has a Masters in Art History/Museum Studies, but there’s only a tiny number of jobs in the museum industry and she never once worked in that field. Perhaps if she had moved, maybe. She worked in the MoMA bookstore I think. Retail, in the museum.

My nephew has a degree that he worked insanely hard in night school to get. I am very proud of his effort. He also has a real estate license, because it was a ticket he had to punch for the office job he had. What’s he doing now? He’s a driver for medium haul and frieght delivery for UPS. Now he trains new drivers and was elected shop steward. It’s a union job, Teamsters. He makes more money with better benefits than he ever has. Sure, his degree helps. But he loves it because he gets to be outside a lot, and he’s naturally a leader that other guys trust. He didn’t NEED the degree. I’m betting there’s a lot of folks just like him too.

Now I’ll flip it though. I absolutly think that going to college and getting a degree - and especially getting the general education - is a great thing. It’s needed. But my point is that just going to college is not necessarily going to get you a better income. And it might saddle you with a lot of debt before you even start. And as a nation, it might saddle all of us with a lot more debt without accomplishing what we want.

So if we are going to talk about college for all, let’s widen the dicussion to include tech schools and the trades. The Unions are stupidly MISSING THE BOAT (again). I’m pro-Union, but damn are they short sighted. We should be including apprentice programs in the discussion. Training in the trades. We need electricians, carpenters, and electronics repair technicians. Power plants cannot hire enough plant operators and field technicians. And while we are at it, why don’t we add some certificate programs around small business creation and operation?
You want to grow the economy? Help young people learn the core details they need to open and run their own business. Practical lessons on getting a business license, accounting, employee laws, customer service, etc. Small businesses have always been a backbone for America. But who can afford to start a business if they have $50K of student loan debt they accrued while getting a degree they may not need anyway? Listen up politicians: maybe before we just wipe everyone’s student loan debt maybe we think about it. Maybe you can wipe it if you start a small business and keep it running for two years. Or become an inner-city school teacher for a few years. I’m sure we can be creative about it. Carrots work.

A thriving community needs diversity, and that means more than color, national origin or gender. It also means age, and background. San Francisco is quickly becoming mostly young and techie. Sure, for those jobs a degree is needed (usually - we can talk about whether you really need one for coding). But get a carpenter.
Or a plumber. Or someone to remodel your bathroom. Good luck. There’s not enough who do those jobs.

You may think I’m wrong, and I’m OK with that. We can grab a coffee and dicuss it. Like civilized people. But to just think that we can send every kid off to college and it’s going to help them compete is really naive, or perhaps affiliated somehow with the money stream going to the college education ecosystem?