A pitch for ’prentices

Posted on June 17, 2011. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

The president wants the United States to have the largest share of the world’s college graduates by 2020, so naturally any program purporting to support higher education (even predatory gimmicks like lotteries) is considered a worthy investment.

Graduating college has never been easy in the aggregate, and it’s become tougher even as college degrees have become more necessary for quality employment. It’s been especially tough in Arkansas, which ranks dead last (51st) in college completion rate, according to the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center.

Joining us in the under-30 percent club of adults 25-34 who hold an associates degree or higher is our frequent statistical twin, West Virginia, as well as Louisiana, New Mexico and Nevada (so much for hitching higher ed to the gambling star).

The unchallenged assumption is that a better college completion rate will make things better overall. But before we start jumping on board with this idea of a 50 percent national college graduation rate—no state reaches it now, and Arkansas has the most ground to cover—it’s time to challenge it.

Most students need financial aid to attend college, in the form of scholarships, grants or loans. President Obama assumes the investment in a college degree pays dividends in earnings. It’s true that college graduates earn more on average than their less educated peers, but that’s a broad stroke statistic that masks wide-ranging variations.

American Enterprise Institute researcher Mark Schneider has termed the earnings gap a “million dollar misunderstanding.” Schneider’s analysis noted that average high figures combine Harvard grads raking in hedge fund fortunes and community college alums managing retail stores, and don’t account for choices in careers or campuses (both critical to earnings), debt, opportunity costs or future earning discounts to present value.

The true worth of a college degree in lifetime earnings advantage? One study estimated it to be as little as $120,000-a mere $3,000 annually over a 40-year career.

Whatever value a degree might hold, an unfinished degree is worthless by all accounts, particularly if a student only completes a few semesters of basics that should have been learned in high school anyway.

Applying Arkansas’ own calculated college six-year graduation rate (only 38 percent of freshman enrolled in 2004 had graduated by 2009), the lottery scholarship will fail to produce a scholar in six out of 10 recipients.Roughly speaking, that’s $60 million down the drain each year.

There must be a better way, and it could well be an idea whose time has come back: apprenticeships.

The principle behind apprenticeships-transferring skills from masters/mentors to employed novices-is as old as civilization. And now, with college education costs steeply increasing each year, a 21st Çentury version of the time-tested practice makes great sense.

Arkansas needs a full-fledged, state sponsored apprenticeship program parallel to secondary education.

Imagine that instead of paying $40,000 to go to college for four years, an apprentice could get paid a modest salary, say $15,000, during a four-year apprenticeship. That’s a full $100,000 swing in his or her financial position.

With four years’ experience, the starting salaries for apprentices would go up as well. The full-service apprentice option could include an employment commitment with the apprenticing employer, not unlike what the armed services do now. That way the employer is assured that its investment in training an apprentice will be handsomely returned with a valuable employee for a few years.

Apprenticeships aren’t appropriate for every field, but there are a great many in which hands-on experience is a better teacher than a textbook curriculum. Apprenticeships also acquaint students more quickly with the nitty gritty of a job or career choice,since they begin working immediately. Aptitude testing, plus initial grace periods, would help students determine whether a job or a field wasn’t right for them before spending big money on a degree.

For a state like Arkansas, with rural populations and a reliance on agriculture, the very nature of apprenticeship builds community stability. Local Chambers of Commerce could organize and sponsor the Arkansas apprenticeship program, since it’s in their interest to keep local employees involved in local industry and local economies.

Everybody wins in a functioning apprenticeship program: employers get low-cost labor they can home-grow into productive personnel, making them more competitive and creating local jobs in small businesses. Kids get an alternative to college in which they achieve mastery in much-needed skills.

For the 38 percent of high school graduates who are going on to get a degree, college as a choice is working fine. But for the 62 percent who aren’t finishing college, an apprentice program is a vastly improved option to throwing money for a year or two at basic college courses.

And for high school graduates who don’t qualify for college, apprenticeships would offer radically improved opportunities over settling for unskilled jobs.

Arkansas can sign on to the president’s goal and try to bring up the bottom of college completion rates. Or, we can choose to be a leader among states and inject some American ingenuity into the European apprenticeship model.

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