Must All Roads Go Through Harvard Square?

With college tuition vastly outpacing inflation, a growing number of Americans are stuck with an enormous amount of debt from student loans. But it’s even worse for those who don’t make it all the way through college.

Today’s Wall Street Journal reported that “millions of Americans are taking on the debt of college without getting the earnings boost that comes from a degree.” And dropping out, when it’s accompanied by major debt, isn’t merely disappointing; it can be crippling.

One reason that so many Americans find themselves in this situation is that the pressure to attend college has never been greater. “A bachelor’s degree remains by far the clearest path to the American middle class,” the Journal observed. “Among Americans aged 25 to 34 . . . the unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree holders was 4.1%, versus 11% for those with only a high-school diploma and 9.8% for those who began college but didn’t finish. Employed college graduates earned 37% more than dropouts in 2010.”

Peter Drucker decried the high cost of college tuition, while recognizing how the university often functions as the ultimate gatekeeper, standing between people and their chosen profession. “In the knowledge society, denial of the degree bars access to jobs, careers and livelihoods,” Drucker wrote inThe New Realities. “This is power far beyond what any other pluralist institution exercises.”

But does this have to be the case? In Drucker’s view, some types of non-four-year education can be equally valuable to the student, more appropriate for certain lines of work and more valuable to the nation as a whole.

The work of “technologists,” as Drucker called them, is a prime example. Technologists, as Drucker explained in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, are “knowledge workers who do both knowledge work and manual work.”

Photo source: P.Tiller

In fact, “their manual work,” he added in a 2001 article in The Economist, “is based on a substantial amount of theoretical knowledge which can be acquired only through formal education.” Examples include lab technicians, software designers, paralegals, automobile mechanics and installation experts.

Most of these technologists come not from four-year universities but from institutions like community colleges. And, as we’ve noted before, Drucker considered America’s community colleges—less intensive and much less expensive—to be a triumph.

On this, I am convinced, rests both the still huge productivity advantage of the American economy and the—so far unique—American ability to create, almost overnight, new and different industries,” Drucker wrote. “Nothing quite like the American community college exists anywhere else yet.”

What viable alternatives do you see to the traditional four-year college acting as primary gatekeeper to a middle-class life?