The debate of degrees vs. trades

We have been hearing it for years — four-year college degrees are the end-all, be-all of higher education. But, in fact, can do more harm than good to students who later graduate with a mountain of debt and not much to offer a potential employer.

In our neighboring state of West Virginia, Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine recently spoke about what schools’ obsession with four-year (or more) degrees has done to our young people.

“The reality is no more than 50 percent of the jobs today and tomorrow will require a four-year degree, yet we only prepare 17 percent of our kids for those two-year programs that have high technical skills as a prerequisite for placement into occupations,” he said. “That’s a real mind-shift that I have to make, and you all (educators and school boards) have to be challenged with, too.”

Paine pointed to Maryland, Texas and Colorado, where research shows graduates from two-year programs are earning salaries higher than those with four-year degrees — and there is no sign that trend will change.

Paine suggests a 50-50 curriculum balance in high schools between preparing students for four-year colleges and two-year programs.

Four-year college degree programs are not right for every student, and more young people should feel free, and prepared, to follow a path that gives them the skills and training they need for the jobs that will be available to them.

That said, Paine’s comments are a renewal of the periodically occurring debate in public education, between vocational training and preparation for four-year college and university work.

Many high school programs offer vigorous vocational training that can get graduates ready to join the workforce upon receiving their diplomas — or pave the way for two-year associate degrees or certificates in highly technical fields.

There does need to be recognition that the world may not need any more philosophy instructors — but it can always use more welders.

Still, educators should not make the same mistake they have, but in reverse. For years, the error was in discouraging youngsters from vocational training. Pushing a certain percentage of them toward it isn’t wise, either, because at the end of the day, there will always be a need for teachers, psychologists and lawyers.

Instead of an arbitrary 50-50 split, then, why not try something different — looking at each student’s needs and tailoring high school to the individual?