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C'mon, America, admit it: College isn't for everyone

August 02, 2012|By Alexandra Le Tellier
(Los Angeles Times )

Is college worth it? It is when you live in a culture that values higher education and overlooks high school grads in favor of job candidates who hold college degrees. Just look at this chart (via the Bureau of Labor Statistics) that compares levels of education with income and the unemployment rate. "You should share this with any high school student you know," warned a posting on Upworthy this week.

But is it fair that we place so much importance on a college degree? My brother, for example, majored in sociology before angling for a job in the entertainment industry, where most people either start in the mail room or as an assistant. Did his college degree make him more qualified for his position, or could he have started working up the ladder straight out of high school?  

I cite my brother as an example because I think he’s pretty typical of a kid who goes to college because he "should" and not because he has a clear idea of what he wants to accomplish. So, not only do we impose college on kids, we also encourage them to attend straight out of high school, before they may know what they want to get out of it. Yeah, college is optional, but it sure doesn’t feel that way (to the delight of for-profit institutions, I'm sure). And for a lot of students, college comes with the promise of debt but only the hope of a job.

Not that I mean to rail against higher education. I think it's very important; I just don't think there ought to be an implication that it's for everyone.

I was lucky. I knew exactly what I wanted to study (magazine publishing), and I found a program tailored to my specific interests and pursued my studies with an end-goal in mind. And as a result, I got a skills-based education.

Which brings me to my second point. In an Op-Ed that ran in our pages in early July, professors Barry Glassner (sociology, Lewis & Clark College) and Morton Shapiro (economics, Northwestern University) argued that educators need to answer these questions: “How can we best provide students with a balance of the practical skills they'll need for the world that awaits them and the abstract wisdom that will help them adapt when that world, and they themselves, change?”

Given recent statistics, it’s a question we have to address now.

“In one of the more hopeful signs of recovery, the number of job openings has been growing steadily,” wrote the Huffington Post’s Dave Jamieson last week, pointing to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “[B]ut there's a slightly puzzling trend in the numbers, [Charlotte Oslund, a statistician at BLS] said: The rate of new job openings has been outpacing the number of new hires.” Jamieson lists several possible explanations, including “the notion of ‘skills gaps’ in certain industries -- the debatable idea that not enough workers have the proper training for certain jobs. Our education system, some argue, isn't addressing the mismatch between the skills acquired by American workers and the skills needed.”

If we don’t address the problem, we could end up in France’s predicament, in which a “skills mismatch” ends up worsening our unemployment situation.  


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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier. Follow Opinion L.A. on Twitter and Facebook.

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