Early decision — college is not the only valid choice

Education has long been seen as the way to success in the United States of America.

But what kind of education and at what cost?

The earliest colleges in this country — like Harvard, founded 1636 — were largely to train ministers. Up through the 1800s, many small colleges, supported by various religious institutions, dotted the growing country and helped bright young men from largely rural backgrounds learn to succeed at more complex urban occupations.

At the beginning of the 1900s, the United States had fewer than 1,000 colleges with a total of just 160,000 students. As public education through high school began to grow, states set up teachers’ colleges that often evolved into large state universities. World War II with its G.I. Bill allowed veterans who otherwise might never have gone to college to do so.

College came to be regarded as the key to the middle class, a means of ensuring social mobility. Now, about two-thirds of high school graduates go on to college — there are over 20 million students in colleges and universities across the United States.

And the costs have skyrocketed. The average cost of tuition and fees for this school year is $34,740 at private colleges, $9,970 for state residents at public colleges, and $25,620 for out-of-state residents attending public universities, according to the College Board.

We earned a bachelor of arts degree at one of the Seven Sisters colleges, Wellesley, in an era when women weren’t admitted to most of the Ivy League schools. Our degree hasn’t brought us wealth — counting the long hours we work each week, we no doubt earn less than minimum wage. But we value our liberal arts education and use it daily as a way of questioning and thinking about the world.

We like our state’s motto for education: Let each become all he or she is capable of being. That means one size doesn’t fit all. But it means each student should be able to develop in his or her own way.

The governor’s initiative, new last year, the Excelsior Scholarship, allows any New York State resident with a family income under $100,000 who can get admitted to a state university to attend tuition-free. This is a great boon for motivated students who would otherwise have trouble affording a college education.

Crippling student debt is one of the reasons enrollment in colleges and universities has declined in the last five years and is expected to continue to decline. So we applaud New York for its initiative. Requiring Excelsior Scholarship students to stay and work in the state for the same number of years they enjoyed free tuition seems a fair trade and should help the state’s economy — ever upward for all involved.

But that does not mean that every student should go to college. Enterprise reporter Sean Mulkerrin has taken a long look this week at the role of vocational education. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the “underemployment rate” for college graduates is 44 percent, meaning almost half of recent college graduates work in jobs that don’t require those degrees.

The problem isn’t that philosophy majors are driving for Uber — that might be an individual’s choice — but rather that many jobs are going unfilled for needed services that pay well. If our sick aren’t nursed, our homes aren’t heated, or our cars aren’t fixed, we’d come to a standstill as a society.

Mulkerrin talked to local high school students who are studying in the Career Training Education program through the Board of Cooperative Educational Services. They are, by and large, happy to be training for what are called “middle-skills” jobs, which require more education and training than a high-school diploma but less than a four-year degree.

Three-quarters of them will go on to further training, including college. Many are training for careers where they will be virtually assured of a job upon high school graduation — often at pay higher than college graduates will earn.

Further, we commend the CTE program for partnering with local industries to meet specific needs. BOCES, for example, designed a program to teach engineering technicians who, once trained and hired, can work for GlobalFoundries, with a starting salary of $46,000 a year and a chance to work up to becoming an engineer.

Students who were once derisively called vo-tards may well earn more and play a more critical role in society than their narrow-minded, name-calling classmates.

“For many, many years, the push in the United States and in New York State has been, ‘To get ahead in this world, you need a college education,’” said Dr. Valerie Kelsey, CTE Programs deputy director. “The aftermath of that is, ‘Well, if you don’t get a college education then you won’t get to be middle-class or above.’ But now we’re seeing this huge skills gap.”

Middle-skills jobs account for half of all current job in the state. Yet, high school students are still being funelled toward college although the number of students who graduate within six years — not the expected four — is less than 60 percent. Clearly, college is not for everyone.

At suburban Voorheesville and Guilderland, only about a tenth of the juniors and seniors attend CTE classes while at rural Berne-Knox-Westerlo about one third attend CTE classes.

How much of this comes from family expectations and how much from school culture, as exemplified in guidance from counselors, we have no way of knowing.

According to a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, made up of 34 democratic countries that support free-market economies, the United States is the country where the socioeconomic level of a child’s parents is most likely to determine that child’s educational achievement — the main driver of this effect is not the characteristics of the parents, but the poor quality of schools attended by students from low socioeconomic backgrounds in America.

We certainly don’t support an educational system, used by many European countries, where students take a test at age 14 that determines if they attend a vocational high school or one that prepares them to be among the 20 percent or so to attend university.

We like a system that offers students choice based on their own preferences.

But we ask our local school leaders to carefully consider the state’s motto — Let each become all he or she is capable of being — and urge them to create an atmosphere where students are informed about and feel free to chose the course that will make them happiest while also contributing what is so sorely needed to the society at large.



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