Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., reasserted his demand for free college for all when he released his education platform last week. Sanders joins other high-profile 2020 Democratic contenders such as Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Vice President Joe Biden in their campaign claims that four-year degrees at public universities should be tuition-free.
“Higher education should be a right for all, not a privilege for the few,” Sanders said in his Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education.
The self-proclaimed democratic socialist claimed that a high school diploma that was good enough “40 or 50 years ago” is not anymore due to a changing world. But according to a report released last fall by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), there are now 30 million “middle-skills” jobs in the nation that pay an average of $55,000 or more without the need for a bachelor’s degree.
“Despite the common misconception that the middle-skills economy has hollowed out, good jobs in this sector have seen robust growth,” said Jeff Strohl, director of research at the CEW and co-author of the report.
Those jobs include many respected traditional professions such as police officers, electricians, nurses, mechanics, and plumbers. They also include numerous emerging occupations like computer programmers, robotic and industrial equipment technicians, and many types of healthcare specialists. The report defines middle-skills jobs as those that require a professional certification, some college classes, or an associate’s degree.
Students, along with some of the 2020 presidential hopefuls, too often assume that a bachelor’s degree is a golden ticket to gainful adult employment.
“There’s that perception of the bachelor’s degree being the American dream, the best bang for your buck,” Kate Blosveren Kreamer of Advance CTE, an association of state officials who work in career and technical education, told NPR. “The challenge is that in many cases it’s become the fallback. People are going to college without a plan, without a career in mind, because the mindset in high school is just, ‘Go to college.’”
The cost of going to college without a plan can be steep. Recent reports show that more than 44 million borrowers across the nation collectively owe more than $1.5 trillion dollars in student loan debt. Even with historically low unemployment rates for young workers, loan default rates hover at about 10 percent. And according to the National Center for Education Statistics, an average of 40 percent of students never even complete their degrees. All that borrowing and dropping out does little to answer the big question: Which students really need a bachelor’s degree to pursue a viable and satisfying career?
Careers like those in the rapidly expanding industries of construction, healthcare, and personal care will account for one-third of all new jobs over the next three years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not a single one of them requires a bachelor’s degree.
Middle-skills job training is also experiencing a renaissance in local public and charter schools. San Antonio’s Southwest High School hosts an Information Technology Career Cluster that prepares students for careers in the IT industry, including helping them acquire professional industry credentials. Another nationally recognized program supplies Tucson, Ariz., with qualified machine operators and other specialists for the burgeoning manufacturing industry there. Other award-winning programs include a hospitality and restaurant track for high schoolers in Des Moines, Iowa, a STEM center in Traverse City, Mich., among many more.
The conclusion of last year’s CEW report is that the outlook for middle-skills jobs has never been better. The conclusion of Psalm 139 is each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made by God. Parents and politicians alike possess remarkable opportunities to direct young people toward pathways that will lead them to adult lives filled with purpose, dignity, and a steady paycheck.