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To some, that suggests that college is a more viable alternative for many of those who would otherwise have sought jobs in the manufacturing sector previously.
However, there are at least two reasons that such a conclusion may be invalid. First, while many manufacturing jobs have disappeared, many other types of technical jobs opportunities have emerged from numerous new technologies (Klein, 2012). Many of them require vocational degrees and certifications but no college degrees. For many people without specific interests in vocational applications of any college degrees being considered, training programs for these types of jobs is much less expensive, quicker, and more likely to lead to satisfying employment options than a college diploma in a random academic area or one of great intellectual value but few employment prospects outside of academia (Klein, 2012).
Second, vocational training, in general, has changed significantly in the last several decades. Specifically, whereas vocational education programs were previously considered a catch-all for students believed to be unsuited to the classroom and with limited vocational prospects available to students completing them, today's vocational training programs provide precisely the sort of preparation that leads directly to numerous relatively well-paid careers in which significant growth in demand is expected in the next decade and that do not require a college degree. For example, the anticipated growth in demand for veterinary technicians (median 2010 wage of approximately $30,000) in the next decade is 52%; it is even higher (60%) for masonry workers earning approximately the same. The anticipated growth for iron workers (nearly $40,000) is 59%; physical therapy assistants (nearly $50,000) is 46%; 44% for medical sonographers (about $64,000); 38% for dental hygienists (over $68,000); 28% for radiology technicians (over $54,000); and 26% for registered nurses who earn nearly $65,000 on average (Klein, 2012).
Another viable option to college degrees for those without specific career interests that require college degrees is no longer widely available in the U.S. But has been emphasized more over the last several years elsewhere, such as in Germany: namely, the apprenticeship concept that was much more common everywhere in prior eras (Ewing, 2009). In addition to preparation for some of the blue-collar types of jobs that have traditionally been taught through vocational training (such as automotive and air-conditioning repair), Germany (in particular) has accredited 350 different types of jobs for which high school students may prepare, often, after leaving academic education programs as early as the age of 15. The concept has been used broadly enough to allow apprenticeships for college students as well, and are available for careers in everything from baking and hairdressing at one end of the spectrum to aerospace technology and the biotech fields at the other end of the spectrum (Ewing, 2009).
A more practical approach to contemporary education in the U.S. would deemphasize the social importance of a college education just for the sake of the degree status. Even some educators acknowledge that the notion that everyone should necessarily go to college is more a "matter of political correctness" than, necessarily, representing greater value beyond that sociological significance (Klein, 2012). The counterargument is that college prepares the individual for responsible citizenship in ways that cannot be measured by employment rates after graduation.
However, it is difficult for proponents of that position to argue against the proposition that, in general, young adults with good paying jobs and strong prospects for long-term employment make better citizens than young adults who have to struggle to gate work or who are only able to find employment far below their productive vocational potential after graduating with a college degree and substantial financial debt. Toward that end, there would have to be a shift in expectation that college is always or nearly always preferable to entering the workforce in many other capacities that do not require a college education or degree. Ideally, high school programs should make more of an effort to promote both options and to help students whose primary interests, talents, and temperaments may not necessarily be in vocational areas that correspond to the traditional focus on college degrees.
The national debt attributable to college education expenses is approximately $1 trillion. While the expense and effort of pursuing a college degree may be the most sensible option for many students who have a clearly-defined career path in areas that require college degrees in those fields that is no longer necessarily the case for many other students. Because advanced education corresponded so closely with better career potential in prior eras, an assumption arose that is hard to resist today, even though it no longer appears to apply as much as it may once have.
The cost of college has increased dramatically in the last several decades, but employment prospects available just by virtue of having any college degree have dwindled for various reasons. Among other things, the route of high school to college before entering the workforce in any long-term capacity probably contributed to the diminution of the relative value of many college degrees, particularly in general studies and humanities, and especially among students who really had little genuine interest in those academic areas in the first place.
Instead of encouraging all high school graduates to continue to college studies, high school guidance counselors should probably spend more effort trying to help students identify their most realistic and genuine vocational or career interests and encouraging those whose interests do not lead naturally to a college path to pursue other viable options. At the same time, that could be more easily accomplished today than only a generation or two ago, because vocational training and certification programs have evolved along with the variety and quality of the alternative career-path options available to contemporary high school graduates.
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