According to the National Student Clearinghouse, only 57% of students who start college will graduate within 6 years. It does not take an engineer to recognize that a system with only a 50% success rate, is, for one reason or another, a failing system. Now, some of this may be able to be fixed at the collegiate level, and we hope that colleges and universities are doing their level best to make college as accessible as possible to interested students. I offer, however, that there isn’t so much a problem with the university system, but a disconnect in the core of what a college education is comprised of, and the needs of some students. Simply put:
It is my opinion that college is not for everyone.
Now, this might seem like a crazy thing to say, especially in a culture that considers a four-year degree a requisite part of becoming an adult. I want you to think back at my statement, however, and think about a word that was nowhere in that sentence: education. Is education not at the root of the real message behind America’s “Go to college, get a job” mantra?
Do we hire college graduates because they managed to show up to a handful of classes each semester for four years? Absolutely not! We hire college graduates because it is our expectation that they have a working knowledge of how the world works and a healthy foundation to build successful careers in their fields of study. In short, we value their education.
I will be the first to admit that for most of my life, I couldn’t imagine what a person was supposed to do after a high school, if not find a four-year college or university. It seemed like a symptom of laziness or of a lack of fore-sight. What I’ve learned since then, however is that there are, especially in the mid-west, some amazing opportunities for intelligent individuals who simply do not learn well in a lecture-hall setting.
For example, the IBEW’s electrical apprenticeship is a rigorous 5-year program that involves 4-8 hours of weekly classroom instruction on top of 40-hour workweeks. In this apprenticeship, students learn the hands-on skills you’d expect including welding, wiring, and state code requirements, but they also learn how electricity works at a molecular level using trigonometry. This doesn’t sound all that different from coursework offered to an electrical engineering major, except that frankly, given the choice, I’d choose the electrician to wire the addition on my house in a heartbeat.
After completing the apprenticeship, electricians are expected to take continuing education classes to help them keep up on proper technique and safety standards. In addition, many go on to be foreman or project managers. This involves intrapersonal skills involving customer service, and employee management. Electrical project managers are also expected to order materials and be able to negotiate good prices for the work being done. These skills are very similar to those learned on a business administration track at a university.
Cost of Education
Aside from being a time-consuming proposition, bachelor’s degrees are expensive! Even in-state tuition and living costs for a regular, state university like the University of Illinois for the 2018-19 school year is estimated by the university to run between $31 – $36k per year. This adds up to over $120k for a traditional bachelor’s degree. Many would feel ill at ease to leave a recent high school graduate in charge of our house for the weekend, but it has become commonplace to expect them to pick a major and a college or university at this same age. Even if the student realizes in the first year that they aren’t ready for a college or university, they’ve likely already tallied up thirty thousand dollars in student debt. In what other way can a person so young make a mistake equal to the cost of a down-payment on a starter home? The electrical apprenticeship mentioned above, on the other hand, is provided at no cost to the student.
Want to Know the Best Part?
If a tradesman decides down the road that he or she is interested in attending a college or university, the school will still be there. There will always be a way for a person who is interested in educating themselves to learn something new.
Cause and Effect
By changing our script from “go to college” to “get an education,” we can show high school students and graduates that we, as educators and employers, are supportive of both their personal and professional aspirations. Individuals are not meant to be cranked through a collegiate assembly line, but to find vocations that fit their skills and interests. College graduates have a hugely important role to play in our society, but so do tradesmen and manufacturers. We owe it to the young people in our communities to teach them that both are viable and responsible options.