The misguided priorities of our educational system

December 11, 2018

People often applaud vocational education in theory, provided it is “for someone else’s kids.” Those kids are most kids, and a false promise of college success does more harm than good. We owe them our focus and the best pathway that we can construct—one that carries them as close as possible to the destination their college-bound peers will reach, and sometimes beyond.

Consider two high school seniors — one who exhibits strong academic talent and one who does not. For one, December marks the homestretch of a yearslong effort, intensively supported by his school, to prepare the perfect college application. For the other, December is just another month on the path to, well, whatever might come after graduation. The former will likely proceed steadily toward a bachelor’s degree; the latter is unlikely to finish college if he enrolls at all. To whom does our education system owe what?

That second student, to be clear, has done nothing wrong. He probably clawed his way through his town’s standard college-oriented curriculum, though it neither targeted his interests and abilities nor prepared him for work force success. Looking ahead, he faces a labor market in which he may need to work harder than his college-bound counterpart for lower pay, with fewer options and slower advancement. Yet we celebrate the first student and lavish taxpayer funds on his education. To the second student, we offer little beyond a sympathetic “Sorry.” Our education system has become one of our nation’s most regressive institutions.

After high school graduation, the first student can access more than $10,000 annually in public funds to support his college experience. Federal funding for higher education has grown by 133 percent in the past 30 years; combined with tax breaks, loan subsidies and state-level funding, the annual total exceeds $150 billion. That funding will cover not only genuine instructional costs, but also state-of-the-art gyms, psychiatric and career counseling services, and whatever social programming the student-life bureaucracy can conceive. At Ohio State, students living off campus get free fire alarms.