The push for higher education has become almost an obsession within our society. The federal government began guaranteeing student loans provided by banks and non-profit lenders in 1965 with the Federal Family Education Loan program. In 1992, it was decided that direct lending would be less costly and simpler than guaranteed loans. For the next decade, congress and universities debated which method was more beneficial to students, taxpayers and the overall state of the economy. While opinions varied, the push to get more college graduates was on; from 1994 to 1998, student loans tripled in the United States as a result of direct loans. While student loans and how to fund them was debated, the push for a substantial increase in students was unified.

Paying the Price

The unified and concerted effort to push higher education has come at a cost. Since the government decided to start tracking statistics on student loans, the numbers of loans and debt has increased every year. The numbers are shocking. In 2013, 70 percent of college students left school with an average debt of more than $28,000. The amount of student loans has swelled to $1.2 trillion and about 50 percent never get paid back. The increase just from 2010 to 2013 was 20 percent. Meanwhile, society continues to downgrade apprenticeships. This trend has been building for decades and reaching a crescendo.

Not too long ago, the term industrial arts or “shop class” was used to describe training in the manual arts. These would be carpenters, mechanics and other skilled trades people. I think society often forgets the term “skilled” is part of that scenario. Trade workers, like colleges, come in a variety of levels. Some workers are skilled while others are merely a body on the job site. Unfortunately, as we continue to push the upper limits of higher education, it is juxtaposed to the skilled trade worker and unfairly further lowers his social status. After all, America was built on the premise of a middle class.

Good News

There is some good news starting to emerge. In 2011, the state of Oregon adopted the 40-40-20 rule. This means that by 2025, the state shall have 40 percent of residents with Bachelor degrees, 40 percent with Associate degrees and 20 percent with high school diplomas. In 2014, they passed HB 4058B which may seem insignificant, but is big to those who believe in apprenticeships. HB 4058B now recognizes a journeyman with a completed certificate in an approved training program as part of the middle 40 percent grouping. Senator Dembrow pushed the bill and recognized the importance and impact skilled workers have on the economy and a stable social society. Even more amazing was the bill passed with a vote of 29-0. Other states are also starting to recognize a trade certificate in a qualified apprenticeship program as equivalent to a degree at a community college. Could this be a growing trend?

The Aspen Institute was formed in 1974 and has influence with big names like Bill Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Madelyn Albright, as well as other world leaders. The more surprising issue is that they now seem to be including apprenticeship as an important mission goal. The Consortia Solution is one such example. This program is a joint effort by American and German companies to compare solutions to the problem of a skilled labor force. The German and American models are uniquely different and each is trying to learn from the other. Other programs, such as Apprenticeship 2000, have been so successful that some American companies report that up to 40 percent of their employees come from this high school program.

Into the Future …

The major points seem to be to reach younger applicants and then blend training and schooling together. Too often, we allow students to graduate and wander aimlessly for a few years. The statistics on American apprenticeship seems to support this notion as the average of an apprentice in construction is 28 years old, whereas in Europe the average age is 19. We need to look at better and more effective ways to attract quality young people to our trade.

Maybe all these trends mean we are reaching a tipping point. If the trend to make only higher education a status of respectability continues much longer, we could be in trouble. The higher education path that was supposed to save our country may actually be our downfall. The fact is debt is debt, the dollar does not discriminate between the good intentions of higher education or frivolous and irresponsible spending.