ETA: This post is US-centric, and I should have made that clear. How much or little it applies to other countries, I can’t say.
As soon as employers made college a necessity for jobs of any significant income (and even some of shockingly low income, such as “receptionist”) back in the 80s or 90s, college started increasing tuition costs into the stratosphere. The cost for a four year degree at even a modest state school is now, in technical economic terms, fucking ridiculous.
How can I say that, knowing how much college increases (on average) a graduate’s lifelong earnings and so on? Because not every degree has that effect. Many degrees lead to an empty or low-paying job market. What can someone with a degree in history, English, or archeology do besides teach history, English or archeology? (And please don’t say “write books” – authors make well below minimum wage, unless they are among the very, very small minority who make it big.) There are a precious few degrees that actually pay for themselves in earnings: engineering, for one. Even degrees for doctors and lawyers – which can pay for themselves eventually – are getting tougher and tougher to justify, because the initial expense is horrendous, and the period of working for little or no money after school is harsher than it was for previous generations because the cost of living is increasing every year (forcing young graduates into even more debt than the degree did).
For kids whose parents couldn’t afford a college fund, who are completely on their own to pay their way through school, it just doesn’t make economic sense to become a doctor when you could become a nurse with far less expense. It may not even make sense at all to go to college, when you could become an administrative assistant or a carpenter and earn a modest but decent living without tens of thousands (or more) in debt from which you have to recover, and still have hope of promotion to something better. And don’t bring up scholarships – they’re increasingly hard to come by, the competition gets worse every year, and in some fields they’re not available at all.
Now, employer degree lust is not the only reason college costs have risen to the point where smart, poor kids are being left behind, but it is one that could be addressed very quickly without costing anyone a dime. Employers need to get over the idea that a college degree is necessary in every profession. It is not. Just a few decades ago, employers realized that people could pick up, for example, how to do an engineer’s job without having an engineering degree, and they recognized that a certain number of years of job experience were equivalent to a degree.
Employers need to stop thinking “degree=qualification” and instead establish qualifications that can be met in more than one way. For example, a poor smart kid can learn every skill needed to be an editor in a publishing house. Books and textbooks are readily available, and there’s information all over the internet, which can be accessed for free at most libraries, so self-education is very possible. Instead of requiring an English degree, a publishing house could instead require applicants to describe in an essay what they’ve done to train themselves for editing (whether that’s college or self-education). After weeding out the ones who don’t impress, the publishing house would interview applicants and give them an editing assignment to complete on the spot under supervision (to avoid the possibility of cheating). The publishing house would still get quality employees and poor smart people would have a fighting chance for good jobs.
For another example, certain types of engineering are far more complex – even if someone has a remarkable flair for constructing engines from crap they found at the junkyard, there are solid reasons why an employer might want them to learn the math skills and concepts involved in engineering. But is there any reason these skills can’t be learned on the job, if the person passes a math test which indicates the capacity to learn it?
The problem is that employers are too lazy to take on the work of apprenticeship. That duty has been passed onto colleges. And yet, the people who actually work with 23 year olds know apprenticeship still goes on. It has to – no college can anticipate precisely what your company wants its employees to do. Companies imagine they’re avoiding apprenticeship, when they’re not. And I suspect – based on personal observations – what most kids learn in 4 years of college could be compressed into 6 months of apprenticeship.
There are only two fair solutions: the Federal and state governments must find a way to make college degrees available to everyone at every income level, or we must create alternatives to college degrees that allow people to better themselves and have that reflected in their income. Not only does the second one not cost tax payers or anyone else a dime, it makes more sense.