You Shouldn’t Need a College Degree

W.J. Astore

A friend sent along an article today with the eye-catching title “You shouldn’t need a college degree to have a decent life in America.” The author argued that Americans are too dependent on college for better opportunities and that a Swiss model of education based on vocational tracking had some lessons for us. Here’s the link: Karin Klein, LA Times, June 13th, https://www.post-gazette.com/news/insight/2021/06/13/You-shouldn-t-need-a-college-degree-to-have-a-decent-life-in-America/stories/202106130026

But what was most interesting to me was what the article left out. Firstly, my dad never finished high school, but he got an education in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and the Army during World War II, then did factory work (again) until he got on the civil service as a firefighter. And that’s what was essential: a decent-paying job backed up by a strong union. My dad’s pay and benefits continued to increase throughout his career because of the firefighters’ union and its bargaining power. Yet nowhere in the article above are unions mentioned. In fact, in America today unions are often demonized as being against the interests of workers. Instead, we’re urged to trust in the uber-rich like Jeff Bezos to provide high-paying jobs with great benefits. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

My dad’s “education” included two years in the CCC, including time in Oregon fighting major forest fires. He never formally graduated from high school but loved philosophy and opera

Secondly, the article fails to mention anything about a living wage for these workers and their careers. There’s no mention of Joe Biden’s broken promise to pass a $15 federal minimum hourly wage (which really nowadays should be $20 an hour).  Without unions and without a living wage, how are all these high school graduates with vocations going to support themselves? Not all vocations pay that well, and some pay no more than $10 an hour and come without health care. Small wonder that so many Americans turn to college for some “insurance.”

Yet even in college they often don’t find the insurance they’re looking for. America’s collegiate system is often about funneling the maximum number of young adults to college while extracting as much money from them as they and their parents are able (or unable) to pay. What’s “higher” about higher education are often the bills and little else.

Look, I taught for nine years at a vocational college and I’m all for it. At a community college you can gain certificates and associate degrees without assuming a heavy load of student debt.  I agree we need more decent-paying vocational programs. For example, I had a student who trained as a heavy equipment operator.  He didn’t do that well in my class, but he didn’t much care.  As he told me, he was graduating to a job, probably in the fracking fields of Pennsylvania, where he’d soon be earning $75K-$85K a year, and this was circa 2010. Not bad pay at all for his chosen profession.

I’m all for vocational options that don’t require four-year (or longer) college degrees and lots of debt.  But let’s have strong unions and fair pay as well, else many of these vocational graduates will be screwed yet again by a system that deflates wages as much as possible so as to funnel more money to the richest.

Another subject the author fails to develop is how college has become the new high school for too many students.  I saw my share of students where I taught who needed remedial math and English because they didn’t learn the same in high school.  Partly this is because we underfund our schools, underpay our teachers, and often focus way too much on high school sports (football in Texas, anyone?).

I also wonder at times whether our system is designed to produce dead ends for students.  It’s one way you get more than a few eighteen-year-olds to enlist in the military. They’re often seeking educational benefits, vocational training, and sometimes those enlistment bonuses as well. Often those bonuses are tied directly to enlisting in the most dangerous military occupational specialties, like being a combat infantryman. The empire always needs fresh bodies.

In sum, I think it’s a great idea to open more opportunities to high school graduates in America. But while we do that, let’s do three other things: 1) Strengthen workers’ unions in America; 2) Raise the federal minimum wage to at least $15 an hour; 3) Improve high school education across the board through more educational funding. higher pay for teachers, and an ethos in America that values education as essential to active and informed participation in civic life.

21 thoughts on “You Shouldn’t Need a College Degree

  1. In my Career Field as a Chosen Firefighter when I graduated from the Fire Academy it was one of the happiest days of my life other than the Births of my 2 Children, and in Firefighting you never stop learning till your last day on the job! My 4 Yrs. in the AF as a Sky Cop I have to say were better than any College Degree as well. When I used my G.I. Bill for a Associates Degree in Fire Science I felt very lucky indeed. In sum I hope these incentives, benefits and opportunities never end for deserving Airmen & Firefighter Appointees & Probies…!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So many ways to learn in this world. Dad learned through life: hardship and hard work as a youth, CCC, factory work, the Army, firefighting, raising a family. Plus he read a lot and listened to music.

      As Stevie would say: We learn — good. Experience is a hard teacher but it’s often the best one.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sadly, unions, in many instances, are about useless. My daughter has been dealing with a workplace issue, i.e., sexual harassment/workplace violence/retaliation, for over a year and a half. Her particular union rep is often AWOL or close to it anyway. Emails are often ignored, and it is like pulling teeth to get the rep to be present even when it is crucial.

    Of course, fighting city hall, or rather the PA DOC when the person at issue is a corrections officer, is a nightmare–even though daughter is an employee of the same facility. You might be able to fight city hall, but don’t try to fight law enforcement. That bond is too tight. We’ve all seen how well it works across the country. It takes blatant, irrefutable video to wage the war and even that is questioned or, in her case, never acquired within the necessary time frame before deletion.

    I’m surmising you are referring to the vocational college that I attended (since I was a student in your one technology and society class–good times!), and I have to agree with the idea of vocational training without ass-deep debt, which that particular college sends many students out with along with their degree.

    As a tutor, I too experienced many students who could not fashion a complete sentence or know the difference between where/were, there/their/they’re, or many other such words. We were not supposed to “teach,” as that was not our job, but that is unrealistic when skills are that low. I saw students jump from one major to another when they could not manage the remedial work for their field. Some stayed; others moved on to places like Triangle Tech that were able to give them the vocational skills without the university courses. At least, they were able to finally reach their goal, but still with the accompanying debt from the facility that couldn’t graduate them.

    I have no answer for the union dilemma nor for the educational mill. I sincerely hope that one is found–quickly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a shame that the union rep is so uninterested in their duties. He not only does damage locally within the rank and file; but to the cause of unionism. They should step down.
      The NALC …National Association of Letter Carriers is a shining example of how to create and maintain an effectively strong union presence throughout every Postal facility in this nation. Our current president, Fred Rolando, started his career as a letter carrier actively participating in the union structure. By the time I became a shop steward Fred was running the state training seminars for branch officers and stewards. We spent our time in classrooms being mentored by some of the best teachers in our ranks about the intricacies of the grievance arbitration process. We learned the manuals, contracts, arbitration decisions, how to file information requests, techniques on how to conduct investigative interviews, grievance file documentation skills….etc. Bottom line, Fred was a masterful educator with the skill of an administrator who insured that we all came away fully equipped to successfully defend any employee who faced discipline or wanted to file a grievance on contractual offenses. It is no wonder Fred is our national president; but there are amazingly powerful union reps throughout the nation. It is all because of the preparation in educating the members to be effective advocates. Believe me when I tell you this, it would stagger the public if they knew how much money the USPS wastes in grievance settlement penalties. Management breaks the contract through this nation daily and repetitively and they would be fired in the private sector if they were so blatant in creating such waste of company revenue. They just have no incentive to honor the national agreement because the penalties are not part of their budget structure for each facility.
      To have effective representation you need well educated and highly trained stewards and branch officers who are selfless, with a strong desire to be servants of their fellow members.
      We were proud to serve the public, it was an honor and I made many deep and lasting friendships with the public I served. They paid our wages, funded our ability to work a career with benefits and I reminded the carriers I represented that they were working a gold standard job; so never just
      “mail in” your duties. I also loved to remind management they did not pay my wages, and that it was in fact the public who paid both our salaries and benefits through the simple purchase of stamps. Let ma now take the time to thank everyone here who ever used our service, I appreciate you for the gift of retirement.
      I have always felt that privatization of the public commons was a downfall in our nation. The services such as power, water, health, waste management especially should be set up financially like the USPS . Good career employment with no profiteering. The business is deficit neutral every year and wages and compensation are tied to the purchases of services.
      Please don’t start with the “ism schisms” this isn’t political, this is called fair and equitable. A fair days work for a fair days pay and no boss or CEO makes 600 times what the laborers make. It’s simply the right way to honor anyone who serves you in your human experience. Plus it would create a social dynamic that isn’t so horribly imbalanced.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I teach in a public high school in an affluent community. While I love the kids, I get increasingly uncomfortable sitting at graduation feeling that I am participating in a fraud. I feel that we are draping these kids in honors and sashes and pins and very few of them can even name a book they have read the whole way through. I teach English and I understand that most of the kids want STEM careers–but where are the kids learning to think critically and ethically about issues raised by those careers?

    I think all kids, whether they are going to be waiters or fire fighters or biomedical engineers, deserve to discover a reading and thinking life in high school. Too often, all we are managing to do is convince a lot of them that this “book learning” stuff is not for them. If you can’t appreciate Wuthering Heights or The Scarlet Letter, you must not be very smart. That feels like malpractice to me. Somewhere in your dad’s education, he got the message that opera and philosophy could be for him if he wanted it. I wish I knew what had happened to that belief.

    So many of the kids (especially after this year) seem lost and struggling with mental illness. They are under so much pressure to make their parents investment in them pay that the ideas about intellectual curiosity and academic integrity are completely laughable. I’d like to enlist the whole bunch of them in something like the CCC instead of sending them off to a bunch of marginal colleges. I teach a senior elective where the final project is learning about the national parks and planning an itinerary to visit some of them. It is completely eye opening. Most of them have been to Disney World and Aruba 10 or 12 times but have never climbed a mountain in their own state. A year of outdoor hard work with people from different places and of different backgrounds could be life changing– especially for the ones who will ultimately go to college.

    We send relatively few kids to the military–3-5 each year out of a class of 200 or so. My least favorite moment of graduation is always the overblown patriotism when all the other parents applaud the cannon fodder.

    Virtually all will attend college. The few who do not are said to be “pursuing career opportunities” — but everyone knows that’s a euphemism. You are quite right. Those kids deserve a life, too. They should be able to attain skills, work and raise a family and not fear destitution or medical bill induced bankruptcy. Ironically, college isn’t even the insurance parents think it is. Kids who start, but don’t finish college or who have degrees, but no meaningful skills, may be worse off than those who never went.

    Vocational education is part of the answer, but so is a reclaiming of very American idea that anybody can learn anything with the ability to read and a library card. I used to work at a school where the custodian was a Vietnam vet who used to sweep my room very slowly while we talked books. He arrived every day with a fresh enthusiasm or outrage and would leave sticky notes on the fronts of books he borrowed from my room, letting the kids know which ones he thought were great. I’ve known lots of these people over the years–non-college folks who read and think and want to hash things out for the sheer joy of it.

    I hope that some of those kids who are “pursuing career opportunities” will be among them, but what I fear is that their lives will be precarious and angry and that the public education they have gotten has made that more likely.

    Let summer come–we need it!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Brilliant comment. Thanks so much for sharing, Katie!

      I don’t know if I would’ve survived high school without books. I was reading all the time. An eclectic mix: Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, Roger Zelazny, Frank Herbert, JRR Tolkien, Jack London, you name it. I recall reading “The Chocolate War” and “I Am the Cheese” by Robert Cormier. I think I lived in my head and through my books.

      To sound like an old fart, I’m glad there were no Smart phones to distract me, no Facebook or Instagram, and very little on Cable TV worth watching. I had more time for books, movies, and friends.

      Also, I had no pressure to attend college. It was my choice and indeed my dad was skeptical about the benefits of higher ed. I recall he recommended I attend TV repair school! Not a bad call in 1981, but little did my dad know then that few TVs are repaired nowadays. It’s usually cheaper just to buy a new one.

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  4. Speaking of Jeff Bezos and those “great jobs” at Amazon, the New York Times just released a story about his business practices. An excerpt:

    ‘Our nature as humans’

    In his drive to create the world’s most efficient company, Jeff Bezos discovered what he thought was another inefficiency worth eliminating: hourly employees who spent years working for the same company.

    Longtime employees expected to receive raises. They also became less enthusiastic about the work, Amazon’s data suggested. And they were a potential source of internal discontent.

    Bezos came to believe that an entrenched blue-collar work force represented “a march to mediocrity,” as David Niekerk, a former Amazon executive who built the company’s warehouse human resources operations, told The Times, as part of an investigative project being published this morning. “What he would say is that our nature as humans is to expend as little energy as possible to get what we want or need.”

    In response, Amazon encouraged employee turnover. After three years on the job, hourly workers no longer received automatic raises, and the company offered bonuses to people who quit. It also offered limited upward mobility for hourly workers, preferring to hire managers from the outside …

    The constant churning of workers has helped keep efficiency high and wages fairly low. Profits have soared, and the company is on pace to overtake Walmart as the nation’s largest private employer. Bezos has become one of the world’s richest people.

    Many people want to believe that being a generous employer is crucial to being a successful company. But that isn’t always true.

    You can find the story by Jodi, Karen and Grace here.

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    1. It just cries out how I’ll prepared he is to be leading any human being. Honor your employees and they will find honor in their daily tasks. Teaching another to become a servant to all they encounter is one of the beginning steps on the path of wisdom. I find this individual rather unenlightening. He has many lifetimes to go before he will become useful to the powers of love. I apologize for that rant, I should realize he came to learn the lessons of greedy leader, so I hope he learns them well. Please forgive such an aggressive evaluation of his performance so far.

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      1. Your apology is enlightened. In 18th century France his head would have been separated from his body with far more efficiency than he seeks to enforce in his employees. No apology given.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. I just read today that Amazon has a 150% turnover rate. An unnamed HR manager said that he fears employees will become like fossil fuels, a finite resource and they will soon run out of anyone to hire.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. JerryS: Poetic justice for this CEO Bezos more like “Bozos” with his self important delusions of Godhood. He seems to have forgotten the “Shadows of his Forgotten Ancestors”, and that we are “ALL” are connected as one on this small planet as Kin on our DNA & RHA! I wouldn’t even bother working one Wk. in one of his Companies expecting a Gold Watch after so many Yrs., and cash incentive bonuses, time off etc., because I know these will be empty promises. Hell he probably doesn’t even need air fresheners in his home wash rooms because we all know this smug CEO’s stuff doesn’t stink!

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  5. I’m new here – a friend told me about a reprint of this piece in LA Progressive.
    I hope it’s appropriate to share a recent piece I wrote on a possible institutional design for technical colleges organized as worker-owned cooperatives, part of the ongoing struggle to rebuild union power and workplace democracy. To my surprise as a non-expert in this topic, it was picked up and published as an editorial in the public policy journal Challenge. The article is free to access here: https://doi.org/10.1080/05775132.2021.1912980
    I wrote the piece out of curiosity: why do technical colleges seem undervalued in progressive labor movement despite being a potential incubator for worker co-ops, unionized cooperatives, and union labor? As I point out in the piece, technical colleges should not force an ideological viewpoint during instruction, but the campus could serve as a place for training and organizing cooperative and union labor structures.

    This piece goes beyond mine to make an essential point: wage, education, and labor organization standards are linked, and they have steadily been weakened. Although the PRO Act is unlikely to pass the Senate due to the filibuster, we may yet see labor advance in the near future.

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    1. Your article was very interesting— thanks for sharing it. It represents a kind of innovative thinking that is rare in education. I’ve been thinking for a while about the role of community colleges— so many students choose them as a default option after high school. I looked into teaching at several local ones about 10 years ago and the adjunct pay was laughable. A back of envelope calculation informed me that I could make more as a Walmart greeter. Not to say that there aren’t good instructors, but you would have to be retired or independently wealthy to do it. At the time, we were facing the prospect of sending 4 kids to college— so that was out as an option for me.

      I thought you might be interested in the work of a fellow Californian— Michael Matsuda- he’s the super of the Anaheim schools and is thinking about vocational education that serves the community and elevates the families living there.
      Here’s a link- lots more written about him elsewhere, too.
      https://cpri.uci.edu/leadership/executive-committee/michael-matsuda-bio/

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I appreciate the comment Katie, glad you liked the article.
        I hope there are many more administrators like Mr. Matsuda trying to center vocational education around the needs of the community. Certainly some trade schools can be diploma mills, serving a corporate bottom line rather than local/regional needs (a quick search yields this story on lax Department of Education regulation: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/education/government-let-many-trade-schools-become-diploma-mills ). Vocational education should be part of a community’s transformation – that’s why I mentioned Ethan Miller’s Reimagining Livelihoods. Although his book doesn’t address it directly, vocational education could play a role in sustainable economies in rural and urban areas.

        Perhaps once the infrastructure bill is completed and tangible development begins, a political narrative can take shape, changing common attitudes, that vocational education can be sufficient to provide for a good life.

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    2. Vocational education is much needed. But we need to change a common attitude that, if you’d wanted higher pay and a better job, you should have gone to college for a BA/BS. I’ve heard working-class people say this! You should be able to practice a vocation while receiving a living wage and good benefits.

      We need to value people and their work ethic and their contribution to society and not because they have fancy names and titles and lots of money and degrees.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. That Maher video nails it. I worked for the Medill School of Journalism in a tech capacity and watched hordes of kids thinking of getting to be news anchors. I also worked for the School of Communication at the same university, Northwestern, and saw hordes of students in “film studies.” I’ve often wondered what became of these groups of kids, what percentage ended up in show business that seemed to be the objective in both cases, but I bet almost all of them would look back fondly on the four very expensive years.

    My own college degree had nothing to do with my career, but I sure had fun with friends. I can honestly say I don’t remember anything learned from all the courses I took because I had no objective, made unnecessary by my parents paying for the ride. On the other hand, I definitely DO recall much that I learned in a hand full of undergrad courses that I took in my 40’s out of a desire to know the subjects taught. It boils down to motivation. If you can’t provide a personal motive for going to college that will justify the cost, don’t go because you are told it is the thing to do or that everyone else is doing it so you should too.

    Regarding the excellent comment above on education, our culture doesn’t value the intellect. Someone who shows knowledge of English literature is considered an oddball, but the professional sports enthusiast is always welcome to hold forth, admired for enthusiasm. Millionaires who did nothing with formal education are paraded before us. We are taught to love the good life meaning having the dough to buy stuff. Image is everything and you need things, not education, for that.

    Poll after poll shows we are an ignorant people, not just about how to change a tire (Maher’s video) but of how our government works and who represents us in it. Basic American history is a famous void for many, but popular culture is always pulsing, endlessly presenting new faces who arrive with no need of any diploma. As Neil Postman put it, we entertain ourselves to death.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A lot of what I learned on my own (i.e. hobbies, work, reading, research, moving to different places, talking with people from different walks of life, etc.) turned much of what is in the universities on its head.

    Liked by 2 people

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