We Need a More Diverse Economy

Michael J. Perrill tells some hard truths about higher education, sounding a theme that’s been a staple here—college just isn’t for everyone:

But our system isn’t rational, and it doesn’t like to acknowledge long odds. Perhaps it used to, but this sort of realism was judged to be deterministic, racist, and classist. And for sure, when judgments were made on the basis of ZIP code or skin color, the old system was exactly that. Those high school “tracks” were immutable, and those who wound up in “voc-ed” (or, at least as bad, the “general” track) were those for whom secondary schooling, in society’s eyes, was mostly a custodial function.

But making sure that there are real options for our young people—options that include high-quality career and technical education—is a totally different proposition. We shouldn’t force anyone into that route, but we also shouldn’t guilt kids with low odds of college success—regardless of their race or class—to keep trudging through academic coursework as teens. Yet it appears that we are doing just that; according to Kate Blosveren Kreamer of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education, only 20 percent of high school students “concentrate” in career and technical education, even though that’s a better bet for many more of them. Then, even when students graduate high school with seventh-grade skills, we encourage them to enroll in college, starting with several semesters of “developmental” education.

This might be the greatest crime. How do low-income students who start community college in remedial courses fare? According to the college-access advocacy group Complete College America, less than 10 percent of them complete a two-year degree within three years. Most won’t ever get past their remedial courses. Almost certain failure.

Yesterday when I worked as an election judge I worked with one guy who was a powder coater by trade and another who made acoustic equipment. It was like a breath of fresh air. Neither of these guys was stupid but neither was an intellectual, either. We found a good deal of common ground. I had more fun chatting with them than I have in a long time.

I think the problem that we have had as a country is that we’ve over-emphasized college educations and what used to be called “learned professions” at the expense of building, making, mining, growing, and so on. If real people with real levels of ability are going to make their homes here we need a diverse economy in which people with a broad variety of skills and talents can prosper rather than one in which only a few people with narrow sets of talents and skills can and we should do what it takes to see that happens.

If that means that Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg or Warren Buffett or Michael Bloomberg can only make $1 billion rather than $50 billion, so be it.

23 comments… add one

  • michael reynolds

    I could not agree more. Career Technical Education (CTE) at the high school level is almost non-existent. We’ve been looking, and the search has included just about every habitable part of the United States. (So not the South or the Northwest.) We’ve looked particularly at culinary programs. CTE tends to be either so basic as to be ridiculous, or just a dumping ground for failing students so the system can score another graduate.

    My son may well have a use for calculus, my daughter certainly will not. But she would love a class that taught primary cooking methods and the mother sauces, for example. No such animal exists. Even schools with more respectable CTE efforts don’t usually allow students earlier than 11th grade, which of course means they’ve decided by then that you are unfit for the exalted college path and are a problem to be dealt with, not an actual human being with different interests and strengths.

    If nothing else it is bad for society to have this chasm between me and the guy who just came and installed a new gasket in my washing machine. I need that guy more than he needs me, but he’s “just” a blue collar guy, whereas I am a “creative.” It’s a bullshit, snobbery-driven system no more logical or defensible than aristocratic systems.

  • We have some dear old friends whose daughter, also a good friend and practically a daughter to us, has just completed a culinary program. If you’d like to chat with her, I’d be happy to put you in touch.

  • michael reynolds

    At a high school? Yeah, I’d love to hear about it.

  • Guarneri

    Dave

    Do you have 2, 3 dot points on how to create a more diverse economy?

    (Drew / Red)

  • Do you have 2, 3 dot points on how to create a more diverse economy?

    They’re almost unending and something I’ve written about extensively over the years. Just off the top of my head

    – we subsidize education to the tune of roughly a trillion per year. I don’t think producing more people to teach future teachers is a good objective for our system. Today educational expenses are growing due to more administrators. Education really demands reform.

    – we subsidize healthcare to the tune of more than $1 trillion year and it, too, is becoming more expensive because administration is becoming more expensive. Reform is needed here, too.

    – the Germans have done some good things in this area (some not so good). How about subsidizing some apprenticeship programs?

    – If we believe that environmental, safety, and labor regulations are necessary for human decency we should require that goods sold here are made under those conditions, too.

  • jan

    I have long lamented the extinction of metal/auto/wood/electrical/drafting/handicraft shops in public school venues. However, once college was deemed the focal point of education, it became more and more the norm to shrink and finally eliminate trade and life skill courses, pushing students into a pre-set one-size-fits-all kind of educational advancement filled with “college prep” prerequisite classes.

    In a way this is analogous to the social progressive mind set on health care, in that the criteria of HC coverage, mandated in their government plans, is not based on individual preference, but rather on what the government sees as a greater good ideological medical model devised for everyone. So, much like education has evolved to the detriment of those individuals who have skill sets suited more for domestic/manual trades, Obamacare is constructed for anything and everything that might plague the masses, rather than for the ages, stages, and/or health needs of the individual. This is also to the detriment of those who ‘liked’ their own personally chosen HC plans, many of whom are now forced into this whole other government, “it’s-better-for-you,” paradigm, because their old plans no longer exist.

  • ...

    That last paragraph of the post was pure sacrilege you know.

  • Guarneri

    Dave

    All noble goals, but I’m not sure that any but eliminating subsidy will create a more diverse economy. My concern should be obvious: subsidizing things like solar power or electric cars under the thin veil of “investment” and ‘job creation” when actually social activism, aka meddling.

  • Well, let me give an example. The reason that we don’t produce our own rare earth elements here but import them from China isn’t because we don’t have them. It’s due to environmental regulations that make it unprofitable and/or risky to produce them here.

    That has spillover effects in chip and other electronics production, just to name a few.

  • michael reynolds

    Guarneri:

    We subsidize fossil fuels, too. Is that social activism? How about farming? We subsidize entire states with roads and postal service and carefully dispersed defense contracts.

    Is it okay to “meddle” by paying for government research that leads to curing diseases whose cure is not seen as sufficiently profitable?

  • Andy

    An even bigger problem with the lack of the various “shop” classes in schools is that means many students are never even exposed to such things. Kids don’t even know what they are missing and, along with all the “you must go to college” propaganda, alternative careers never even show up on the radar for many.

  • Lack of exposure isn’t limited to shop classes. As I think I’ve mentioned before many kids, whether inner city or not, have very little exposure to the wider picture of jobs that are available. One of the culprits: residential sorting.

  • steve

    Who is this “we” that overemphasizes education? You can make the case that there are a lot of people doing it, but the ones that matter are the parents. As long as parents believe that education is the way for their kids to have a better life, I dont see you changing this. It worked for them, or it worked for their friends when they were younger. If you want to expand classes in the vocations, you will need to get these same parents to vote at the school board level to fund these programs. (I am the only person commenting here who has actually gone to school board meetings?)

    As a practical matter, it may be difficult to stream kids into the vocational programs, certainly as they exist.

    Steve

  • Steve, we have had three consecutive administrations the center of whose jobs policies has been higher education. That’s the “we”.

    Additionally, when you subsidize finance, healthcare, and education as heavily as we do it’s a statement that we favor those areas over the basic production sectors. When you wage a campaign against the use of coal for power generation and subsidize solar and wind, it’s a statement that you don’t want heavy manufacturing.

    The problem with these policies is that they penalize industries that employ people without college educations while promoting sectors that require not only college education but post-graduate education. That’s a policy that leaves two-thirds of the people behind.

  • Andy

    Steve,

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but yes, I’ve made my opinions known to school boards. I’ve also served for two years as an officer for the school PTO and done a shit-ton of volunteering. I’m on a first name basis with pretty much everyone in the school. However, I’m unusual – most do not have the time and energy (and, frankly, in my current job my ability to be involved in the school is greatly diminished).

    As I see it there is a larger trend toward standardization of academics and those standards do not include things like shop class or CTE-type skills. Administrators and school boards know where the bread is buttered and the butter comes from standardized academics and performance on standardized tests. Sadly, that’s where the priority is for most parents as well due in part to the propaganda about education and college prep.

    In short, until the incentives change, educations leaders will not under-prioritize “ancillary” school activities like shop, music, CTE, etc.

  • Andy

    Sorry, bad grammar today – should read “…education leaders will continue to under-prioritize “ancillary” school activities like shop, music, CTE, etc.”

  • jan

    When you wage a campaign against the use of coal for power generation and subsidize solar and wind, it’s a statement that you don’t want heavy manufacturing.

    That’s so true. Plus manufacturing work is ‘stigmatized’ these days, due to it’s lack of status in a society who sees a college education as a symbol of achievment — whether or not one can get a job afterwards because of the degree earned.

    I see Andy’s point too, as to the futility sometimes in exercising a voice which most of the time goes against the tide of voices who want more AP classes, versus those who want to bring back vocational ones.

  • steve

    “When you wage a campaign against the use of coal for power generation and subsidize solar and wind, it’s a statement that you don’t want heavy manufacturing.”

    No. It means you want fewer particulate pollutants. Gasified coal should help. Natural gas has been displacing coal anyway.
    Steve

  • michael reynolds

    When you wage a campaign against the use of coal for power generation and subsidize solar and wind, it’s a statement that you don’t want heavy manufacturing.

    Do you acknowledge that the opposite would be a statement that you do want more asthma, emphysema and lung cancer? That you want more massive water-poisoning chemical spills in West Virginia and North Carolina as happened recently? That you want Beijing’s air quality? That you want vast tracts of land to look like Mordor?

    I don’t think a lack of power is why we lost the steel industry, I think it was that American corporate overlords refused to upgrade and improve their facilities and had their lunch eaten by foreign countries willing to invest – most often with governmental support. Same reason we got our asses kicked in cars and planes and ships.

    The cost of a kilowatt of power in Japan is quoted as 20-24 cents. In the US it’s 8-17 cents.

  • Guarneri

    “We subsidize fossil fuels, too. Is that social activism? How about farming? We subsidize entire states with roads and postal service and carefully dispersed defense contracts. ”

    Yes.

  • Do you acknowledge that the opposite would be a statement that you do want more asthma, emphysema and lung cancer?

    Of course. These things are trade-offs. My complaint is that the trade-offs are being made with some consistency to disadvantage industries that actually employ ordinary people. As to the dystopian picture you paint, it’s a rhetorical flourish. The Germans and Japanese have both done better at keeping their heavy industry while protecting their environments. We could have both but with the direction in which we’ve been heading we’ll have vibrant healthcare and educational sectors and millions of unemployed. BTW, if you think that hospitals are environmentally friendly you haven’t looked closely enough.

    While you’re painting dystopian pictures, you might think about the large quantities of very environmentally damaging rare earths are required for solar panels and wind turbines. Since those aren’t produced here it’s out of sight, out of mind.

    I think it was that American corporate overlords refused to upgrade and improve their facilities and had their lunch eaten by foreign countries willing to invest – most often with governmental support.

    I’ve worked in a steel mill as has Red who can chime in if he cares to. Yes, American companies had to compete with foreign competitors who received support from their governments. If you’ve noticed, that’s something I’ve complained about on a regular basis.

    However, I don’t think your explanation is the right one or, at least, not the whole story. I think that union work rules that raised the cost of labor and made the whole operation much less efficient were considerably more of a factor than a failure to invest.

  • One more point. The nature of the trade-off isn’t moral. It’s aesthetic. The heavy industry still exists and we’re buying its outputs. It just doesn’t exist here. It’s in China where it’s spewing even more pollutants than it would here, making even more people sick than it would here, and an enormously more intractable problem than it would be here.

    But it is out of sight.

  • ...

    No time to for particulars, but even people doing post-graduate work in college aren’t fully aware of their career options.

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