Reforming college vs. vocational pathways

In an over-qualified labor market, employers will fill the “highest” jobs with those who have the “highest” credentials. Since over-schooling means there are too many workers who are highly educated, some of these workers are necessarily allocated to “mid-level” jobs. This process is repeated  for those with mid-level qualifications, where, since there are not enough mid-level jobs, many are forced to compete for low-level jobs. – Quoted in Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education 

An email exchange with Oren Cass made me want to answer a few questions for myself: Why should we even try to reform how college works? Won’t focusing on college detract attention from the “other half” students who most need a vocational path?

I’ve hinted at the answers to these questions in some of my other posts. But, mostly to help me clarify own thinking, I thought I’d try to summarize. In order of decreasing importance, here’s why we should include college in these discussions:

  1. Credential inflation: As the quote at the top illustrates, credential inflation will eventually infect all jobs. We’ve already reached the point where file clerks need a college degree. I worry that at some point we’ll require everyone have some college education and there will be no true blue collar jobs left, a situation both Cass and I want to avoid. And so we have to fight the education obsession head on.
  2. Higher ed is ignored: I’ve been working through (and enjoying!) Oren Cass’s book. While I find his overal framing and analysis novel, the notion of a vocational track itself isn’t that new.  Presidential candidates routinely call for more of it. But all these essays and public exhortations imply that the academic approach to learning (aka college) is perfectly fine for white collar workers. I disagree. Many college students would benefit from a greater work emphasis, and it’s a neglected line of analysis.
  3. Forming a broad coalition: From a purely strategic standpoint, we have a better chance of rethinking education with as broad a coalition as possible. Since most kids in college want a job at the end of the day, it would be politically wise to include them. A work track does a better job on that point, and I suspect it would get more buy-in than a CTE track. I concede, however, that I am making an empirical claim that might be wrong. While my personal bias says a work track would be more effective in helping push the reforms both Cass and I support, it might not be. It’s possible that a large coalition would only detract attention from the CTE students who need the most help.
  4. Devaluing the idea that education is intrinsically good: Regardless of whether a work frame is a more effective political strategy, I think it’s important to support it for philosophical reasons. There seems to be this widely held belief that education has some intrinsic worth. Beyond ~10th grade, I’m not sure it does. Work is more valuable for both individuals and society, and that’s what we should collectively promote.

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