James Dail (CMC ’20)
The bachelor’s degree has traditionally been a surefire way of attaining the American dream of a financially stable middle-class lifestyle. This is increasingly not the reality for college graduates today. More students are going to college than ever before, a trend that has coincided with a staggering increase in college tuition, and therefore student debt. Trade schools have emerged as an alternative to college that would allow students to enter the middle class without taking on student loans. However, secondary education in the United States is designed expressly for the purpose of preparing all students for college, and does little to prepare them for vocational training. Fortunately, the German education system provides a model that demonstrates how the U.S. can adopt an education system that can train some students for university education, while preparing others for trade school.
When American college students enter the workforce, they instantly run into a problem of supply and demand. They are members of a new, highly educated workforce, but the nature of work itself is not evolving rapidly enough to meet their high skill level. As such, many of these students find themselves employed in jobs where they cannot make good use of the skills developed through their degrees. Due to the increase in college tuition, many of these students were forced to take on student loans in order to attend college. When these students begin work in jobs that they are overqualified for, they do not earn enough money to pay back their student loans, creating a systemic cycle of indebted college grads with little prospect of paying off their debts within a few years after their graduation. For many students, attending vocational school can provide an alternative to this doomsday scenario. However, as it stands, the U.S. education system is failing to prepare students for vocational education.
Education in the United States is liberal arts intensive and college preparatory. Students, regardless of intellectual aptitude, are expected to take a wide variety of subjects that will give them a broad intellectual foundation that college can build on. The problem is that many of these students, who have been conditioned to go to college their entire lives, cannot keep pace with the intellectual rigors of college. For those who are better at working with their hands than with their minds, trade education can provide an alternative way to gain a middle-class lifestyle for a significantly lower cost. If trade-education is to be significantly expanded, then the United States needs to move away from the one-size fits all liberal arts model of education. It needs to adopt different educational tracks for students with different aptitudes and potentials.
The German’s model solves many of the issues that plague the American system. For their secondary education, German students have to sit for an exam that determines which of the three educational tracks that a student can pursue depending on how well they score on the exam. The first is Gymnasium, which is the traditional university route. The students who performed the best in high school and are prepared for the intellectual rigors of university typically score in the range for this track. The second track, Realschule, is for students who score closer to the average on the test, and demonstrate an aptitude for technical subjects. These students will pursue vocational education, and will attend school until they complete 10th grade, after which they will enter the workforce. They have a broad range of career options, including carpenter, welder, and electrician. The third track, Mittelschule, is for students who score poorly on the placement exam. These students attend school through 9th grade, and are prepared to enter work in service-related jobs. However, workers on this last track are not condemned to a lifetime of menial labor. Germany also has job retraining available for workers of all ages who want to improve their life standing. In the U.S., all of these students would be expected to follow the same track towards a college education, regardless of whether they have the right skill set for college.
In addition to allowing students to be placed into jobs that they will find rewarding according to their aptitude and skill set, an advantage of such a system is that it allows the government to allocate resources more efficiently. There would be no need for students to attend school all the way through 12th grade if they are not going to university. Subjects like trigonometry and physics, other than to provide a broad base of common knowledge, will be of no use for students if they do not go to college. State governments will save money if they do not teach these subjects to students who will not need them. For those who pursue technical training, instead of having to wait until after graduation to attend trade school, it is made available to them while they are in high school. This will allow them to enter the workforce and pursue well-paying technical jobs even earlier.
The German system provides several insights on how the U.S. can improve its educational system. The German’s prioritize career success over an arbitrary gold-standard of a college degree, like what exists in the United States. It is clear that this standard has created many inefficiencies not only in the American educational system, but ultimately also in the economy: heavily indebted workers that are over-skilled for their jobs do not positively contribute to the economy. In Germany, there is allocative efficiency in both the educational system and the economy: each individual is competently and successfully matched with their profession. he American system of education is in need of structural reform, and adopting aspects of the German system of education would allow many millions of Americans to attain prosperity, and it would allow them to do so in less time and with less cost.