The impossible has happened. Slate has published a halfway decent article on education in America.
From the website that brought you “You’re a bad person if you send your kid to private school,” “Teaching Is Harder than Rocket Science,” and “Summer Vacation is Evil” comes an essay arguing that maybe college isn’t the best option for all students.
No, this isn’t another counterintuitive #SlatePitch. Author and education reformer Michael Petrilli argues that the College-4-Everyone mindset underlying the education reforms of the past decade place too much emphasis on universal college-readiness, and not enough on “alternative pathways to the middle class.” To liberally paraphrase his case: the odds that a sub-literate 9th-grader (from a “low-income family” in a “rural or inner-city area” who spends his afternoons “sniffing glue”) being ready for college come graduation time are slim. The odds of him succeeding at a four-year college are laughably so. Why not, Petrilli asks, encourage less academically-inclined students to pursue technical trades, vocational school, or other alternative career paths?
I suppose advocates of Moar College need more convincing though, so I’ll pose a series of questions. Does our economy need more workers formally trained in English lit or Social Studies? Is going to “the best school you can get into” a worthwhile expenditure for marginal students (or the society that subsidizes them)? What has the ROI been for the country’s $1 Trillion worth of federal student loans? Why is a bachelor’s degree now a prerequisite for working as a secretary? What kind of mad world requires you to have more formal education for the same job your mom had for 40 years? Why is the only sector of the economy that didn’t tank from 2007-2009 demanding we import programmers by the millions as so many of our own grads can’t find jobs?
There are a couple of other trends going on in the background that dampen my enthusiasm this line of thinking somewhat. One, of course, is the higher ed bubble, plus the related problem of several decade’s worth of grade-inflation, which I’ve talked about at length before. Push more and more of them into college, borrow the money, inflate the grade, then scratch your heads and then blame Obama (or Bush, if that’s more your style) when they can’t find jobs.
The second and more troubling trend is this: in the next few decades, any middle-skilled jobs that can become automated with robots or software, will be. Bill Gates, in a talk last week at the American Enterprise Institute, predicted that the demand for jobs such as drivers, retail clerks, waiters, and even nurses and accountants will be substantially lower 20 years from now. That is to say, vocational training may be a great option for a marginal student now, but that student who goes for the two-year accounting degree today might just as quickly find herself out of a job well before she’s ready for retirement.
Sadly, I have no answers or policy solutions for near-future humans on the road to the technological singularity. Students who are smart, students who learn a trade that somebody is willing to pay for—whether it’s a high-skilled profession like genetic scientist or mechanical engineer, or more service-based like cosmetology and plumbing—will probably do well enough. But the Average is Over (or nearly, anyway), and we’re already witnessing The End of Men. The confluence economics and technology is going to necessarily alter America’s notions about education and work.