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Local View: Not every kid needs a four-year college degree

From the column: "We need to honor work in America and realize that our educational system needs to be aligned with the types of jobs necessary for a productive and competitive society — such as mechanics, nurses, electricians, and welders."

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Several decades ago, the U.S. seemed to decide that, for our kids to be successful, they needed to get four-year college degrees. Interesting since only 25% of our jobs require a four-year college degree or higher.

Approximately 60% to 65% of U.S. jobs require some form of an associate’s degree, technical training, or industry certifications. That leaves 10% to 15% of jobs requiring less than a four-year degree.

If you look at our high school system today, approximately 1.2 million kids drop out each year. That’s one kid every 26 seconds. That‘s a dropout rate of about 20%. In several of our lower socioeconomic areas, the dropout rate can easily reach 50%. The U.S. used to have some of the highest graduation rates among developed nations. Now we rank 22nd out of 27 developed nations, as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2014.

In career and technical education programs — or CTE programs, which are subjects such as health science, business administration, and welding — dropout rates are lower than 5%.

Many kids who drop out say they are bored or that they see no relevance in what they are learning.


Unfortunately, what we continue to do is urge every kid to get a four-year degree while also continually and dramatically underfund CTE programs.

High-school dropouts commit 75% of crimes in this country, said a 2014 report published by PBS. They account for 79% of our state prisons’ populations, 59% in our federal prisons and 69% in our jails. The recidivism rate in the first year after release is 44%; it’s 79% in six years after release. Although some prisons do a good job at training and the development of prisoners, most don’t. Our whole concept of incarceration is about punishment, not training and development, not social skills development, and not psychological help so prisoners are better prepared to re-enter society and stay out of prison.

We essentially are recycling our kids who dropped out of high school through our prison system. The economic cost of this is a tremendous drain on our society through lost taxes on wages, increased social costs, and the high financial burden of housing and feeding prisoners. If we could lower our dropout rate by just a few percentage points it could save us billions of dollars annually — not to mention the incredible pain and suffering that could be spared for so many youth in America as well as their families.

The results of high dropout rates are extremely damaging to our society and our country. The damage doesn’t just come from those who drop out and go to prison, there is a large segment of our society that, because of a lack of an education or skills training, is stuck in poverty with no easy way out. This is eating away at the very fabric of our society and, unfortunately, plays a role in the decline of our democracy.

This is a fixable problem, but only when we come to terms with the reality that every kid in America does not need a four-year college degree in order to be successful. We need to honor work in America and realize that our educational system needs to be aligned with the types of jobs necessary for a productive and competitive society — such as mechanics, nurses, electricians, and welders, who are great societal contributors and who, in many ways, are happier in life than some with four-year college degrees, loads of debt, and jobs they don’t like and don’t pay that well.

I’m not against anyone earning a four-year degree. Those graduates are critical to the advancement of our society and the future advancement of America. The path we have been on for many decades hasn’t gotten the results that were intended, though. What we’ve ended up with is a significant portion of our society lacking the educational foundation or skillset to live above the poverty level and instead struggle to get by every day.

America has fallen behind many of the industrialized nations on several measures such as crime, health care, education, and poverty. If we want to reverse these trends, I believe we must change our thinking around education and workforce development. If we continue our focus on four-year degrees, we fail CTE programs that give our kids jobs related to technical skills that raise many people out of poverty, keep youth out of jail, and offer dignity and the opportunity to pursue the American dream.

Is that too much to ask?


J. Doug Pruitt of Knife River is a writer and contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page.

Doug Pruitt.jpg
J. Doug Pruitt

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