Reviews | The wrong priorities of our education system

Consider two high school students – one who demonstrates strong academic talent and one who does not. On the one hand, December marks the home stretch of a years-long effort, intensely supported by her school, to prepare the perfect college application. For the other, December is just another month on the road to, well, whatever might happen after graduation. The former will likely progress steadily to a bachelor’s degree; the latter is unlikely to finish university if he enrolls at all. To whom does our education system owe what?

This second student, to be clear, did nothing wrong. He’s likely worked his way through his city’s standard college curriculum, though it doesn’t target his interests and abilities, nor does it prepare him for success in the job market. Going forward, he faces a job market where he may have to work harder than his college-bound counterpart for lower pay, with fewer options and slower progression. Yet we celebrate the first student and lavish taxpayer funds on their education. To the second student, we offer little beyond a friendly “Sorry.” Our education system has become one of the most regressive institutions in our country.

After graduating from high school, the first student can access more than $10,000 per year in public funds to support their college experience. Federal funding for higher education has increased 133% over the past 30 years; combined with tax breaks, subsidized loans, and state-level funding, the annual total exceeds $150 billion. This funding will not only cover the true cost of education, but also state-of-the-art gymnasiums, psychiatric and career services, and any social programs the student life bureaucracy can devise. In the state of Ohio, students living off campus get free fire alarms.

The second graduate probably gets nothing. Annual federal funding for non-college career paths at both the high school and post-secondary levels totals $1 billion. True, he will have to buy his own fire alarm.

One explanation for this bizarre state of affairs, in which society invests heavily in those heading for economic success while ignoring those who fall behind, is the widely held belief that anyone can graduate from college. If that were true, the push into the college pipeline might make sense.

But most young Americans don’t even get a college degree. Federal data shows that less than one in five students navigates smoothly between high school, college and the career path. More students are not finishing high school on time, more are failing to make the transition from high school to college, and more are dropping out of college. Forty years of reforms, accompanied by a doubling of expenditure per student, have failed to improve this picture. The results of standardized tests have not moved. SAT scores went down. More students are enrolling in college, but the share of 25-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees did not increase from 1995 to 2015 and is barely above the 1975 level.

A second explanation is the widely held belief that a college degree is a necessary and sufficient “ticket to the middle class”. If that were true, even a small chance of escaping the so-called sad fate of inadequate education is better than never admitting defeat.

But while the median college graduate earns more than the median high school graduate, these workers aren’t the same person — indeed, they’re likely people with very different academic outlooks. Instead, examine wage distributions for more comparable samples: those with earnings at the top for workers with only high school degrees and those at the bottom among college graduates. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that high school graduates with above-average incomes (50th to 90th percentile) earn between $34,000 and $70,000 a year. College graduates with below-average incomes (10th to 50th percentile) earn between $28,000 and $58,000.

Pushing people in the first category to attend university and landing in the second category does them little service. And remember, this assumes they graduate; people in their position usually won’t. Also remember that these are the results before trying to create an attractive non-academic path that they might prefer and that could set them up for success.

What might such a journey look like? For the roughly $100,000 that the public spends today getting many students through high school and college, we could instead offer two years of traditional high school, a third year that splits time between a sophisticated vocational curriculum and a subsidized internship, two additional years split between subsidized work and employer-sponsored training, and a $25,000 savings account, possibly for future training. Any American could have, by age 20, three years of professional experience, an industrial degree and income in the bank.

To reverse the regressive nature of the system, we should redirect our college grants to fund this new path. The college funding burden remains manageable for those who graduate and use their credentials. They will always be the winners in the economy, even paying off the loans. The fact that some young Americans are taking on unaffordable debt is not an argument for even more college spending, but rather a reminder that its value proposition may prove poor.

For student borrowers who are unlikely to graduate, current grants are mostly successful in attracting them to a substantial investment of time and money at both high risk and low return. If a good alternative existed, they would be well served to take it. Certainly, the choice must remain theirs. But to decide wisely if college is worth it, they really have to face the cost.

People often applaud vocational education in theory, as long as it’s “for somebody else’s kids.” These kids are most kids, and a false promise of college success does more harm than good. We owe them our focus and the best path we can build – one that takes them as close as possible to the destination that their college-bound peers will reach, and sometimes beyond.

Oren Cass (@oren_cass) is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of “The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America”.

Follow the Opinion section of the New York Times on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and instagram.

Janice G. Ball