It’s Time For Colleges To Try Something A Little Different

For the last several months, I have been blogging about the state of higher education—specifically, the need for and responsibility of colleges to prepare students for good-paying jobs with careers once they graduate. As I have written these blogs, I have gotten angrier and angrier! Because I am convinced more than ever that the majority of colleges disregard this activity as their responsibility. Yes, their institutions (and even perhaps the administrations) pay lip service to what students are going to do next. But functionally preparing their students for that “next” is not part of their agenda.

To further illustrate my point, several weeks ago I was skimming Facebook and came upon an interesting article. It discussed preparing students for technical skills…not a “classical education,” as we used to call it, but a commercial education for non-college bound students. I must admit, it sounded pretty good and harkened back to the days when New York State awarded both college-bound (Regents) and General diplomas.

Why America’s current system doesn’t work

Reading this Facebook article caused me to click through to another article from Dated April 29, 2013, it was entitled, “What Germany Can Teach the US About Vocational Education” by Harold L. Sirkin, a senior partner at Boston Consulting Group.

In his article, Sirkin laments the fact that in the U.S., we have a cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to secondary education. He then goes on to describe the German educational system and how and what that country does to successfully prepare young people for the workforce.                                                                         

Sirkin asserts that our current U.S. system simply doesn’t work for a large number of students. He writes, “In the 2011-12 academic year, for example, one program alone—the federal Pell Grant program, intended to help low- and moderate-income students finance college—cost taxpayers $34.5 billion, about half the entire U.S. Department of Education budget.”

Apparently, the Pell Grant program is not accomplishing what it was intended to and what’s more, it’s a huge waste of money. In one of my previous blogs (“Better Paying Jobs for College Graduates: Why Higher Ed Needs to Do a Lot More Than Hand Out Diplomas”), I made the similar point, that what today’s higher ed system does is develop a cost-ineffective journey for most students (or, if not most, a significant number of them).

But the Pell Grant is only part of the problem because you can’t get through college on only Pell Grants, and if low income students can’t get a scholarship for the balance of their tuition, this is where the trouble begins. The end result? Again, back to Sirkin’s article: “Many Pell Grant recipients never graduate. They flounder; they drop out; they become statistics.” So here we go. Many students don’t graduate, hence they don’t get high-paying jobs and they’re stuck with plenty of debt. That, folks, clearly does not work for society.

Perhaps there is a better system

In extolling the virtues of the German educational system, Sirkin observes that “our friends in Germany know—as we should—that some students are bored by traditional studies; some don’t have the aptitude for college; some would rather work with their hands; and some are unhappy at home and just need to get away. They realize that everyone won’t benefit from college, but they can still be successful and contribute to society.”

While Americans often see such students as victims, Germans see them as potential assets who might one day shine if they’re matched with the right vocation, he writes. Furthermore, Germany has a system in place—a partnership of employers and unions with government—to do the matching and provide the necessary training. This dual system allows students to spend time both inside the classroom and outside practicing their trade. As a result, few Germans find themselves unemployable. And they are even paid for their apprenticeships so they are productive wage earners. A win-win.

Could America benefit from such an educational structure? You bet.

What’s the economic advantage of vocational training?

According to Sirkin, more than half of German students (51.5%) choose this vocational education program as a path to follow for their careers. Which got me thinking: What would happen if even a small portion of U.S. secondary school students could take a similar route?

I suggest a number of advantages. First, we would have people trained for productive trades at a younger age. Second, as stated earlier in this blog, we are spending an enormous amount on Pell Grants and probably a larger amount on college loans, with not enough return. A robust American vocational training program would reduce the Pell Grant burden to the economy and decrease college debt, freeing our young people from years and years of heavy debt service. And the ensuing cash flow to do things they want to do would not be a bad thing!

U.S. higher ed needs to change

So could a German-type of model fit into our higher education system? I believe that yes, such a change is doable within the current college environment. It might reduce the university-level student pool, or even—best case scenario—force institutions to change their academic offerings to make them more in sync with real world needs. I don’t believe we have to dismantle the system, but rather modify it to fit our infrastructure and societal needs.

It’s the right thing to do

So as you can now see, I’m a big proponent of colleges needing to be more responsible for their students’ futures and do a better job of preparing them for the work force. So let’s start with vocational education. I don’t think colleges have to be responsible for turning out good plumbers but in today’s technology age, what should they be preparing students for? Certainly programmers, but what about other vocations that require students to have a combination of academic skills and practical application?

The answer? In educational lingo, let’s all put on our thinking caps and make post-secondary education relevant for everyone.

For more on the subject, read our blogs on higher ed

At Simon Associates Management Consultants, we have written several blogs on higher ed and how it should be doing more for its students, both while in college and afterwards in the workplace. To access them, click the red bar below. I welcome your feedback and any thoughts you have on the subject. I look forward to hearing from you.



Andy Simon, Partner
Simon Associates Management Consultants  

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