St. Joseph’s Workshop: Some Thoughts on Higher Education and the Trades (Part I)

When I was in middle school in the late 1980s, students were required to spend some academic quarters in what were once called “shop classes.” In seventh grade, these included sewing and woodworking. I made a number of Christmas presents in those classes: a stuffed unicorn for my cousin, an oven “push-pull stick” for my aunt, a set of very nondescript bookends for my grandmother and a decorative trivet for my father. In eighth grade, there was metal shop, where I somehow successfully built a strongbox without maiming myself with the spot welder.

I have no idea what has happened to those first creative efforts. I know that they were not particularly well-crafted: the unicorn’s horn was limp and the strongbox could have been broken into with a strong well-directed sneeze. Still, I have high hopes that the “push-pull stick” is still somewhere in my aunt’s kitchen, waiting to be called upon to protect her from the evil machinations of her oven.

Looking back now, I realize that I am most likely one of the last generation of boys and girls to ever have to take such classes, which were once a mainstay of public school education. Certainly when I moved up into the high school, these options had by-and-large disappeared; I only remember a class in auto mechanics which, as an “Honors track” student, I would never have been expected to take. So, whatever happened to “shop class?”

No doubt, there are detailed scholarly studies on this question somewhere, but my own theory is fairly simple: our public education system has stopped preparing students for life in favor of preparing them for college.

For my entire adult life, college has been called “the gateway to the middle class.” We constantly hear about how college graduates have greater earning potential over their lives (about $1 million more, according to one study conducted in 2015). Students who are the first in their family to attend college not only get well-deserved kudos, but also access to various financial aid packages. In the year I was born (1974), only 9.2 million students enrolled in American colleges and universities. In 1992, the year I was a freshman at the College of William & Mary, that number was almost 14.5 million. This year, that number is estimated to be at 20 million, which is slightly lower of the all-time high of around 21 million in 2010. Projections until 2028 indicate that the numbers will continue to rise slowly but steadily (the data can be found here).

The costs of higher education have risen with the demand for it. Between 1988 and 2017, the average cost of attending a four year public college or university (in adjusted 2017 dollars) has more than tripled. The rise in tuition at private colleges and universities during the same period has been more modest: only 129%. To cover these costs, the American student has gone into a massive amount of debt. According to recent reports, 44.7 million Americans owe a whopping $1.56 trillion (with a “t”) in student loans, over $500 billion more than the total U.S. credit card debt. Small wonder, then, that many of the potential Democratic presidential nominees for 2020 have made student loan forgiveness and “free college” a major selling point of their campaigns.

With all this demand for college education and all this money spent, one might be justified in thinking that the end product was pretty good. Sadly, the realities of modern American education indicate such hopes to be naive at best:

As a professional academic, I have grappled with these issues for some time, including the fact that my livelihood is ultimately based on maintaining this new status quo that “everyone should go to college,” As a traditional homeschooling Catholic father, I find myself wanting there to be another way forward for my children. In my next post, I’ll talk about that potential way forward,

St. Joseph, pray for us!

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