Do we need more college education?

On Jan. 20th, 2015, President Obama formally announced his plan to make the first two years of community college free, alleviating some of the challenges for lower-income citizens hoping to pursue a postsecondary education. This plan would apply to anyone—young students, veterans, established members of the work force looking for better jobs—who attends college part-time and can maintain a 2.5 GPA. Some critics have lambasted Obama for using public money to send people who could easily pay tuition to college, while others have chastised the President for setting aspirations too low. After all, if people are willing to get educated, shouldn’t they have more access to rigorous institutions?

Education inflation has become a major problem in America. Of course, tuition is the most visible feature for most of us. According to one study, by 2030 the average annual private university tuition could be as much $130,428. This is staggering, and while many factors have caused this tuition inflation, I believe one of the largest elements is the overwhelming desire to be educated.

For many of us, our parents told us throughout our childhoods that the only way we could be successful in life was to do well in school, so we could get into a good college and get a great job afterward. This prophecy seems to have fulfilled itself, except for the great job part. Today, more than one-third of US jobs require a bachelor’s degree, while another third require an associate’s degree or some college education. Gone are the days where an intelligent but uneducated candidate could find a job to support their family. But I want to change that.

When I lived in Australia, I became fascinated with their education program. The way it works is, when you reach the tenth grade (or Year Ten, as they say), you have two options. If you plan on pursuing a university degree, you will continue on to Years 11 and 12, take your exams, receive an aggregate score for your work, and be allowed into universities based on your number (known as an ATAR). However, if you do not want to pursue higher education, you drop out. From there, you can apply to TAFE (Technical and Further Education) colleges, which allow you to pursue your interests through study and apprenticeships.

While we could spend taxpayer money allowing less-privileged citizens to pursue academic degrees, I think it is far more worthwhile for our government to invest in helping our citizens down the path to vocational degrees. After all, not everyone has a desire to pursue an academic education, but that doesn’t mean they should be excluded from the numerous opportunities that require one.

In Australia, vocational colleges offer a multitude of degrees. These colleges provide education in subjects as eclectic as automobile mechanics, horticulture, culinary education, hairdressing, forensics, massage therapy, and teacher training among others. While the United States offers many of these services at universities, two-year community colleges and in some high school settings (e.g. agricultural high schools), by no means do they lead to the same sort of opportunities or quality of life that Australian schools do.

While studies have shown that an associate’s degree, whether academic or vocational, will boost the lifetime earnings of their recipients, it seems that vocational education does not always create a path to a suitable quality of life. According to payscale.com, a site that aggregates the average earnings of degree/major holders, a sous chef with an associate’s degree in culinary arts can be expected to make between $24,280 and $53,327 annually. While this may seem a decent return on a free, two-year education, we must not forget that the poverty line in the United States stands around $23,283. While this could devolve into an argument of raising the minimum wage (I’ll save that for another time), I believe this comes down to a lack of esteem for those who pursue vocational degrees.

In Australia, this problem is not nearly as prevalent. In fact, people who graduate from vocational schools—affectionately called “tradies”—are able to find jobs that not only allow them to survive, but to live. When I was looking for a job to pursue over my gap year, I stumbled upon an offering for welders that would net a candidate $250,000 for 30 weeks of work. While I ultimately decided to work as a weed-sprayer in a national park, as an untrained high school graduate, I still netted roughly $800 a week.  Of course, I understand that Australia has a welfare system that borders on socialism, but what does it say about the wealthiest nation in the world when an untrained laborer abroad can make more money than a skilled worker at home?

If we invest more money in the vocational education sector, these individuals will be able to pursue better lives while also become recognized for the important jobs they provide. In my own opinion, there is something of a stigma attached to people who pursue associate’s degrees and vocational education. While every Australian knows what TAFE, the largest vocational educator in the country, is and at least one friend who has been educated through it, could any of you name the best technical/vocational school in the US? If you said Pennsylvania State University—University Park, congratulations for proving me wrong. But for the rest of you (and myself), who most likely said ITT Technical Institute, vocational education has long been seen as a venue for those who do not have what it takes to be in a position of power, which is not true.

Vocational education trains people we could not live without. If you’re in the hospital, don’t you want the best nurses caring for you? Don’t you want the best forensic scientists to help put away criminals in your community? Don’t you want the best teachers for your children? While some of these come from college backgrounds, there are not nearly enough people to fill the gaping demand. It is time to reexamine our priorities. In the land of opportunity, we should allow all people to have an opportunity to pursue the career they want and still live happily.

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