Out of every 100 students who enter ninth grade, 18 will fail to graduate high school on time, 25 will earn their high school diploma but not enroll in college, and 29 will enroll in college but fail to complete a degree[i]. Even then, among the remaining students, 12 will graduate high school and earn a college degree, only to obtain a job that does not require a college degree. The result is that a mere 16 out of every 100 students who enter ninth grade will successfully move through the “high-school-to-college-to-career” pipeline.[ii] For low-income and minority populations in the United States, the statistics are even more staggering: In 2016, the four-year graduation rate for full-time Bachelor degree-seeking Black students was 21 percent, and the six-year rate was 40 percent, compared to a four-year rate of 45 percent and a six-year rate of 64 percent for Whites.[iii] Furthermore, despite the increase in high school graduation rates in the last few decades—from 76 percent in 1970 to 93 percent in 2018[iv]—there have been few improvements in meaningful learning outcomes. Based on outcomes from the American College Testing (ACT) Program in 2017, only 27 percent of test-takers met all four college-readiness benchmarks (English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science).[v] Although there have been countless proposals to address the problems of the higher and postsecondary education systems in the United States— including free college to “cancel student debt,”[vi] and a federal higher education matching grant to increase college completion[vii]— vocational alternatives can provide a unique solution by preparing students for productive workforce participation without the burden of college tuition. Such alternatives focus less on academics and more on concrete skills and real-world workplace experience.
When analyzing the earnings distributions between high-school-only graduates and Bachelor’s degree holders in the United States, the difference, at first, seems as suspected: In 2017, the median weekly earnings for high school graduates with no college was $718, compared to $1,189 per week for those with a Bachelor’s degree.[viii] However, high-school graduates at the 75th percentile of wage distribution ($1,021 per week) made more than Bachelor’s degree holders at the 25th percentile of their respective wage distribution ($802 per week), even without vocational training systems.[ix] There are wide varieties of employment positions that don’t require a Bachelor’s degree, according to the Brookings Institution, especially jobs in the “mid-tech” industry such as computer systems analysts and computer network-support specialists.[x] Less-educated workers occupy two-fifths of the nearly 1 million jobs in this “mid-tech” industry, and annual earnings even at the 10th percentile of the respective wage distributions are between $40,000 and $50,000.[xi]
Despite economic data that seems to undermine the necessity of a college education, the United States has failed to see the value in non-college pathways. Over the past 25 years, federal funding for vocational alternatives in the United States declined by 30 percent while federal funding for college education rose by 133 percent, not including the substantial state-level funding for colleges.[xii] In the future, in order to balance the attractiveness of non-college opportunities to students who are less likely to succeed in college, tuition grants for students should be applicable toward vocational programs, in addition to their use for traditional college routes. In 2019, bipartisan legislation known as the JOBS Act proposed the expansion of Pell Grant funding to cover short-term technical training, which would give students more opportunities. The expansion would also cause traditional postsecondary institutions to compete with career-driven programs, perhaps lowering costs for the long-term.[xiii] Additional proposals to address the shortcomings of college education and encourage participation in vocational programs include programs modeled after the Swiss apprenticeship program[xiv] or reforms to college class credit systems.[xv] The transition in the United States will likely need to be a slow shift over the next decade or two, to allow time for students and institutions to adapt and to allow time for research to find the most cost-effective changes.