Critics of the higher education system in the United States have a lot to complain about, but one of their clarion calls is that there needs to be a shift towards more vocational training. In principle this seems reasonable, the problem is that vocational training in the US doesn't work very well. A study of How College Affects Students found that evidence from the 1990's suggested that the impact of sub baccalaureate vocational training has approximately 1/2 the impact of an associates degree. And associates degrees are less than one half as effective as a bachelor's degree. In recent years, the advantage of a bachelor's degree has increased even more - this causes those who are familiar with the data to be very skeptical of those who call for increased vocational training.
Meanwhile, vocational education does seem to work quite well in Europe. Switzerland and Germany appear to be running many successful vocational training programs.
What's keeping the US vocational programs from looking like the successful European ones?
1. A lot of vocational education in the United States is provided by for-profit colleges that are dependent on federal student aid. For-profit colleges in the United States have until recently only had to convince students to attend and the federal government to continue to provide loans - they have not been held accountable for their failure to provide a valuable education. When the education company with the political connections and the best marketing win, the bad education companies prevent good education companies from taking root and growing.
2. In Europe, the important of a four year college degree is not stressed nearly as much. Especially if students were in a top high school, there is some measure of shame in going directly to vocational education.
3. If only low quality students are going to opt for vocational training right out of high-school, businesses will not want to create apprenticeship programs for workers they would not want to hire.
4. Vocational training in Switzerland starts at the age of 16. Instead of being at school for five days a week, students are in school fir one or two days a week and working at their apprenticeship on the other days. This preemptive sorting does not sit well with the American notion that anything is possible for high school students.
Current critics of the United States higher education system need to understand why vocational programs in the US generally have not worked. The best solution to a poor education system is the creation of a parallel system that works better. Peter Thiel is trying to demonstrate a parallel system operating with top students via his 20 under 20 program. But significant change will not occur without a solution that can be applied to a sizable percentage of average students. These solutions need to provide proof of intelligence and consciousness while imparting useful skills. And perhaps most importantly, any successful large scale education system has to show that their students have a willingness to conform.
Defenders of the higher education status quo need to realize that emphasizing the importance of a four year college education for everyone creates a self reinforcing belief that makes it difficult to create workable alternatives. But many of those arguing in favor of our current education system are professors with a lifetime tenure, so some of them might understand the self reinforcing cycle they are perpetuating.