David Phillips: No question education important, but best career path up for debate

David Phillips
Reflections from my Notebook

As students head back to school, the debate over education surfaces again. The debate isn’t over whether education is important. There is no question that education is key to a healthy society as well as to a successful economy in this highly technical world, but there are differing opinions on what type of education is best.

For the past several decades, it was assumed that a college education was the ideal for every young person in America. The promise of making important connections, pursuing passions, mastering key skills and preparing for professional careers is what has always made college an easy choice.

However, college is also a serious investment, one that is becoming increasingly expensive. The National Center for Education Statistics shows the average cost per year for a four-year degree was $1,286 in 1963-64, or the equivalent of $10,119 in 2016-17 adjusted dollars. The average cost in 2016-17 was $26,593 for public and private institutions.

Many people are now expressing dissatisfaction with the return on investment for a four-year degree. A recent survey shows that two-thirds of those who attained a college degree have regrets about their education.

In the survey by PayScale, an online salary research firm, the cost of their degree was the reason 27 percent of all graduates regretted their decision. “No matter how we cut the data, student loans was the number one regret reported,” stated the synopsis of the study.

The regrets spanned all ages, although baby boomers had the fewest regrets and millennials had the most regrets, presumably because student loan debt is a primary reason for a stark decline in home ownership and wealth accumulation among young adults, according to a 2019 study by the Federal Reserve. The study showed that student loan debt doubled between 2005 and 2014 among individuals 24 to 32.

However it isn’t just young people facing a crisis caused by student debt. Americans age 60 and older owe more than $86 billion in unpaid college loans. A substantial number of these people 65 and older are in default, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, meaning their Social Security benefits are garnished to pay off their student debt.

Even with that investment, people who have college degrees often don’t find jobs suited for their expensive degrees. While about half of Minnesota’s high school graduates enter a four-year college, only about 22 percent of the jobs in the state require a B.A. degree or more, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

In the past, employers favored people with college degrees even for positions that didn’t require a degree, something they could do since there was so much competition for jobs. Even when competing for those non-degree jobs, applicants who didn’t have the degree were bypassed, often leading to a lifetime of lower earnings, perhaps even poverty.

That is changing, though, as there are more positions to fill than there are applicants for many jobs today. Employers can’t be as picky when the potential employee pool shrinks.

Minnesota firms are also facing a high demand and low supply of workers with technical skills for jobs such as those in skilled manufacturing, health care and construction-related trades, including electrical or plumbing. People who choose to go into these occupations that don’t require a four-year degree are finding much satisfaction.

A recent study from the Center of the American Experiment, a public policy organization based in the Twin Cities, found young people who choose non-four-year pathways, such as a two-year degree, apprenticeship or occupational certificate, can often do better than their college-educated peers.

For example, median lifetime earnings for CNC machinists, dental hygienists, plumbers, electrical line installers and similar occupations are as much as 61 percent higher than those of four-year degree holders. Electricians, for example, can expect lifetime earnings between $2 million and $2.2 million.

State Sen. Jason Rarick (R-Brook Park), one of those electricians, has his own electrical business in Pine River, north of Brainerd. His goal is to change the perceptions of these jobs.

“My passion is to help school counselors and students understand the trades aren’t jobs for dummies,” he told American Experiment. “You aren’t wearing a suit and tie, but it absolutely requires skills.”

He noted that rather than competing with other students for jobs, these people have employers competing for them when they finish their technical training.

The problem is many secondary schools are slow to adapt to these trends. There is still a sole emphasis on college preparation at many high schools.

Many firms have found that high school graduates are woefully unprepared for skilled work, so they have taken matters into their own hands, finding it is advantageous to train employees for their more highly-skilled positions.

The state is helping them out with programs to provide training. The Minnesota Apprenticeship Initiative received a large grant from the U.S. Department of Labor in 2015 with the goal of getting 100 companies to hire 1,000 apprentices by the end of 2020.

 Another state program allocates nearly $3 million in apprenticeships and dual-training grants under the Private Investment, Public Education, Labor and Industry Experience (PIPELINE) program. Four growing, high-demand industries — advanced manufacturing, agriculture, health care services and information technology — are eligible for the program.

On-the-job training gives hope to young people whom, perhaps, never even made it through high school. If they show initiative, intelligence and a willingness to learn, they aren’t destined for a life of futility, as often was the case before.

So, the answer to the education debate is there is no one answer.

Although education is more than dollars and cents — one could argue there are many intrinsic benefits to higher learning, an argument reserved for another day — there are many career paths available today.

A college education is still important since the world needs highly-educated individuals in many capacities, but it isn’t necessarily for everyone. Many young people can find satisfaction with career opportunities provided by a technical or trade school. Others who had a hard time with any type of school won’t be left behind if they are willing to try apprenticeships or on-the-job training.