Rare good political news: Boosting apprenticeships

Trump Orders U.S. Regulatory Review to Boost Apprentice Programs” is not a good headline, but the article is worth reading because apprenticeships are important, underrated, and should be more prominent and prevalent. We’ve written about the desirability of apprenticeships before, in posts like “The Department of Labor’s ‘American Apprenticeship Initiative’ (AAI) Shows Some Forward Thinking by the Feds.” Moving towards an apprenticeship-based model is also a bipartisan good idea that should get both left and right excited, because the existing policy and institutional infrastructure doesn’t work very well and has led to students and former students holding more than $1 trillion in debt that can’t be discharged through bankruptcy.

Right now, most federal education policy is oriented towards getting everyone into a four-year college or university and graduating with a four-year degree—but, as the cost of college rises faster than other sector of the economy, it’s not clear that college is always such a good idea. In addition, the value of a degree varies widely by major. Just “going to college” is often not enough. The number of people who have expensive college degrees yet find themselves in jobs not requiring them also appears to be rising; I went to an expensive liberal arts school in the northeast, and one of my roommates from college is working as a bartender. I don’t want to disparage bartenders, having availed myself of their services many times, but four years and five figures—if not more—in costs is a terrible misallocation of resources.

For The Story’s Story, I wrote about Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton’s book Paying for the Party, and, while the book is too complex and interesting to summarize briefly, it describes how colleges have evolved party tracks that require little studying—but undergrads with successful outcomes on that track tend to be wealthy and socially connected. Many undergrads wander onto that party track without their peers’ financial and social resources, only to fail to graduate, or to graduate with weak degrees that don’t produce much income. I don’t have an immediate citation for this claim, but many researchers have found high percentages of college graduates occupying jobs that don’t require college degrees.

Given this situation, policy change is warranted. If college was once a panacea, growing college costs have eliminated that situation. Shifting towards apprenticeships is one way to shift in a smarter direction. Right now, the Department of Labor and some states have “Registered Apprenticeships” programs of various kinds, but most of those are in the construction trades. We’d be better served to broaden that base.

The original article cited above also points out that Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta appears to be behind the shift. He appears to be of higher competence than many current executive branch political appointees, which is good. As a side note, in contemporary politics, there tends to be a drive to oppose anything at all proposed by the “other” party. This tendency is bad. We should work as hard as we can to judge any policy or person on its (or their) merits. Don’t oppose or favor a particular policy merely because your “team” opposes or favors it.

Over time we may also see the definition of “apprenticeship” and “school” change. For example, many coding bootcamps aren’t traditional schools and aren’t exactly apprenticeships either. A couple friends have done the Flatiron School in New York City. Lambda School is a new, promising effort. Pretty much everyone knows that high-paying, in-demand fields include programming and almost all levels of healthcare, while there isn’t a huge amount of demand for generic grads in most non-technical four-year college programs and for people who don’t have many skills. Things like coding boot camps may fill the gap between school and work for some people, while traditional trades seem to be robust, as those of us who have had to pay a plumber or roofer knows.

Apprenticeships are also an obviously good idea from the perspective of academia; anyone who teaches college students at schools below the most elite level knows that a large number of students really shouldn’t be in college. This was most obvious to me at the University of Arizona, but it happens across the academic landscape. Many of us in the basement of the Ivory Tower are attuned to the many students who don’t like school, drop out of it, but still have to pay a lot for it via student loans that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. I’ve been teaching undergrads for ten years, and it’s clear that many undergrads don’t know why they’re in college, don’t care about school, and are floundering in an academic milieu; they don’t like abstract symbol manipulation, sitting still for long periods of time, or reading.

Many college students go because their high school teachers and parents tell them to, yet many dropout after taking on student loans, or they graduate with weak degrees, little learning, and few connections. See, for example, “Exclusive Test Data: Many Colleges Fail to Improve Critical-Thinking Skills.” In modern colleges, there is a lot of “They pretend to learn and we pretend to teach.” Professors are mostly rewarded for research and grad students are socialized to ignore teaching in favor of research. To be sure, some professors do focus on teaching, and community colleges in particular are teaching-oriented—yet the overall culture is clear, and many of the least-prepared, most-marginal students pay the price. Professors have often realized that there is little incentive to grade honestly and lots of incentive to not rock the boat, pass students along if at all possible, and collect those (meager) paychecks.

To professors, the unreadiness of many students is so vast that it’s hard to motivate them or pull them into the academic or intellectual culture. Many students flail in large classes and ultimately dropout. Again, this isn’t universal, but it is common and, again, obvious to anyone who’s spent time at the front of a college classroom.

The “college for everyone” meme is likely played out. Be ready for the apprenticeship shift and a wave of federal and state RFPs for innovative apprenticeship programs.

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