The pandemic questions the value of a degree

Until the Covid-19 crisis, few questioned whether a four-year college degree was a good investment.  But that has all changed (“The End of The University,” The New Republic, October 2020).  I submit a debate is long overdue.

Only in this country is postsecondary education considered to be essential for a bright future.  Our competitors abroad harbor no such delusions.  They begin the process of differentiation early in the lives of students.  Those who lack the wherewithal for handling rigorous academic material are directed toward vocational education. 

But we persist in the fiction that everyone is doomed without a college degree. That’s patently false.  Young people who follow a vocational curriculum in high school, coupled with an apprenticeship, go on to earn a solid living, without the burden of student debt.

Free and open college, on the other hand, has been a disaster.  In 1970, City University of New York guaranteed admission to all students who graduated high school.  By 1978, two out of three students required remedial work in writing, reading or math, and one in five needed it in all three.  By 1998, the board of trustees had had enough and ended open-admissions at four-year colleges, requiring applicants to pass proficiency tests to gain entry.

We do young people a disservice by giving them degrees that aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. They would be far better off learning a lucrative trade. It’s finally time to accord vocational education the respect it deserves.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

2 Replies to “The pandemic questions the value of a degree”

  1. How about — in addition to upgrading voc ed options — requiring or at least making much more attractive a 12-24 month “national service” program for the post-high-school years?

    My sense — no hard evidence to support it — is that for many (possibly most) students who enroll in away-from-home college programs (two-year or four-year), a major motivation is just getting away from Mom & Dad and living on their own for a while with other college-age people (plus, of course, the greater access to alcohol, sex and sometimes drugs that goes with living away from Mom & Dad).

    As things stand now, if a kid wants to move away from home immediately after graduating high school, his/her two real options are college or the enlisted military. Enlisted military is a pretty grim option for most kids; at least initially, there’s little alcohol, sex or drugs available + you have to follow other people’s orders 24-7; might as well live at home and work at 7-11. So, the obvious option is go to college.


  2. Labor Lawyer: That’s an excellent suggestion. The closest we came was the Peace Corps during the Kennedy administration. Prior to that was the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Roosevelt years. I continue to believe that too many young people are not college material. They lack the aptitude and maturity to handle rigorous work.


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