My 9-year-old goldendoodle Henry spends his days on a red chair overlooking the street, keeping the neighborhood safe for the rest of us. He’s peaceable and by far the most popular member of our family, with award-winning teeth to boot. What he lacks in boisterousness he more than makes up for in hirsuteness; 11-year-old Zev claims he’s “fur all the way down.” Besides belly rubs, he lives for observation (and perhaps commentary).
Everything was right in dogworld until Ringo came along. A big slobbery labradoodle, Ringo lives a few houses over and recently discovered the ravine connecting our backyards. He announces his presence by jumping up on our back door, splattering mud on the windowpane, and paw-pounding the knob; on at least two occasions he’s opened the door himself. Ringo’s M.O. is to sashay into the house and check Henry’s bowl for food. Anything there is gone in seconds. Then he loudly laps down all Henry’s water before pattering in search of more. Early on, Henry would try to hide extant biscuits, carrying them into the living room before Ringo got in. All for naught; not a challenge for Ringo. So we began moving Henry’s bowl to the kitchen counter, prompting Ringo to jump up, trying to reach it from every angle. Like a good host, Henry stands back and watches, politely. Ringo’s visits have become a bit of an occupation. One night last week he showed up at 9:30 p.m. A few days later Ringo was banging around the kitchen when I was eating breakfast and again while I was fixing lunch. The next day we found a shredded bag of dog bones in the backyard. Ringo had somehow gotten into the pantry, nabbed a bag of bones off the shelf, carried it outside and gone to town.
Much more Ringo than John, Paul, or George, this shambles of a dog might be comic relief except for his effect on my previously placid middle-age dog. Although I’ve advised him that his friend is a mooch and not to be ruled by his stomach, Henry has stopped listening. He’s begun jumping up on the counter and yesterday stole a chicken wing off Zev’s plate. He’s no longer obeying commands on walks. This morning 13-year-old Hal commented that Henry is breaking bad. We haven’t let our kids watch Breaking Bad, but from YouTube videos about the series that somehow make it through the filter, Hal is able to recount the plot in detail. Hal added we’ll only really know if Henry has broken bad if we come home one day and find he’s built a meth lab in the basement.
I suppose I should be thankful that the family member with a significant negative peer influence is the dog. Also on the bright side is a bolstered belief in the ability to learn quickly. Since I wrote A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College, a guided tour of new bootcamp, income share, and online last-mile training programs, I’ve been anxiously waiting for millions of Americans to opt out of overpriced and unrealistically long degree programs and launch careers via faster + cheaper pathways. As we conclude 2022, let me acknowledge it hasn’t happened. Something like 1.5M young Americans have disappeared from accredited colleges and universities, prompting all manner of expensive Chronicle of Higher Education guidance for enrollment-challenged colleges. But Generation Missing isn’t counting on bootcamps or short digital credential programs. They’re taking frontline jobs that now pay just enough to get by, engaging in social media influencer reverie, or contemplating eSports careers from behind Xbox controllers. Digital credentials have grown, but only because overpriced master’s programs are suffering the same fate as bachelor’s degrees: working adults who already have good jobs are switching out.
As a result, the average cost of college has topped out but not yet fallen. And colleges continue to play financial aid bait-and-switch, deceiving young Americans and their families about how much a degree will actually cost and how much debt they’ll incur. A GAO report released last week estimated 91% of colleges fail to disclose a true net price in award letters; 41% don’t provide any net price while 50% provide a misleading net price by excluding items or listing loans as “awards.” Other common tactics include categorizing Parent PLUS loans (not subsidized, 8% interest accruing as soon as funds are disbursed, origination fee) as part of the core package. In a cartoon-villain-ish response, financial aid officers insist prospective students “should be able to do simple math” and “figure out how to get to the bottom line themselves.” What matters is revenue, which explains why the powerful higher education lobby – dozens of organizations co-located at One Dupont Circle, appropriately so considering their shared goal to keep the merry-go-round spinning – isn’t putting its weight behind loan forgiveness. Colleges don’t care because they’ve already been paid.
Meanwhile colleges have begun generating additional revenue in ways that harm students. The New York Times found 20 universities have signed deals with online sports betting companies or casinos to promote sports gambling to alumni and students. Schools like Michigan State, Louisiana State, University of Colorado Boulder, and University of Maryland are allowing gambling partners to send emails to current students offering credits worth hundreds of dollars to anyone who places an initial bet. Even the Times seems to be souring on college shenanigans; witness this bit of sarcasm: “Because gambling is not featured on school tours or in university brochures, parents may not know their children are enrolled in colleges where gambling is encouraged through free bets, loyalty programs and bonuses.”
While colleges scramble for dollars and as the employment market streaks away from traditional higher education like an Imperial battle cruiser at the start of a Star Wars film, alternative-to-college rebels should be more motivated than ever to blow up the college Death Star. But as the Republican party failed to stop Donald Trump’s nomination in 2016, it’s important to recognize that an “anyone but” campaign is unlikely to succeed unless there’s a clear alternative to support; it’s hard to get behind of raft of different college alternatives (although admittedly not as hard as a raft of Republican presidential candidates). The identity of that college alternative is the “life, the universe, and everything” question of our space and time.
As alternative-to-college energy coalesces, we’re on the cusp of having a clear answer: apprenticeship. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking apprenticeships are good for plumbers and welders, but immaterial for careers outside construction and probably irrelevant for my kids. But take a moment to contemplate that your thinking may be limited by our space and time, circumscribed by wrongheaded American education and workforce policy.
First consider we’re not only talking about the registered apprenticeships that dominate construction. While these have grown in popularity – participation up 64% in the past decade – there’s been an explosion in non-registered, “small a” apprenticeships – jobs providing earn-and-learn opportunities. They’re sprouting in sectors where trained, productive talent can be hard to find: tech, healthcare, financial services – given the continuing tight labor market, pretty much across the economy. Apprenticeships include hire-train-deploy programs and also, as mentioned in the first Gap Letter of 2022, career pathways: employer-supported skill-based training that connects frontline workers to good gateway jobs. So think of apprenticeship as a catch-all for jobs paying at least a living wage while simultaneously training workers to perform higher value work and earn much more.
Sadly, America’s current approach to apprenticeship is characterized by the toddler and pedestal heuristic. Say you’re trying to get a toddler to stand on a pedestal and recite Shakespeare. How should time and resources be allocated across the two distinct workstreams (build pedestal, train toddler)? The right answer is to focus 100% on the really hard problem, the bottleneck. Without a tiny thespian, there’s no need for a pedestal. But it’s human nature to spend time and money on both, producing a quick win: a really nice pedestal.
American apprenticeship policy (rules, funding) has focused on building a pedestal e.g., convincing people apprenticeships are worthwhile, protecting apprentices from predatory employers, doling out grants so community colleges can develop related technical instruction curriculum no company will ever use (i.e., apprenticeships that exist only on paper). But because apprenticeships are jobs, they require an inversion in thinking, particularly for those of us in educationland, along with everyone else who’s an “education expert” from having attended school. By far the biggest issue is that, left to their own devices, businesses don’t launch and run apprenticeships on their own. Foremost among the many reasons is that no company or organization is keen on paying wages to workers who aren’t (yet) productive.
America punches way below its apprenticeship weight compared with every other developed country – as a percentage of the workforce, the UK, Canada, and Australia do about 8x better while Germany, Austria, Switzerland do 10-15x better. Rather than fixating on the pedestal, our rivals have adopted policies and incentives to address the bottleneck: they’ve funded the necessary infrastructure to get employers over the hump of employing unproductive apprentices.
The answer hiding in plain sight is a robust ecosystem of high-intervention intermediaries: companies, nonprofits, and public agencies that do most of the heavy lifting of launching and operating apprenticeship programs – bearing much of the expense and risk – until apprentices are productive.
More than anything else in the education and workforce arena, America needs to build this infrastructure so apprenticeships in all sectors of the economy become accessible to students right out of high school, community college, four-year colleges, and graduate and professional schools. I’m excited to wrap 2022 by announcing that my next book, Apprentice Nation, will be published next fall. Apprentice Nation explains why the U.S. has fallen behind in apprenticeships and provides a roadmap for leveraging earn-and-learn to become a stronger, fairer country. It also includes a directory of apprenticeships currently hiring in tech, healthcare, financial services, and across the economy outside construction.
What makes apprenticeships special is that they’re jobs first and foremost, not training programs or schools. Earn-and-learn is a game-changer for much of what plagues America: student loan debt, socioeconomic immobility, frustration at being shut out from economic opportunity, geographic mobility, and workforce diversity. Combining paid work with relevant training levels the playing field for Americans from underprivileged backgrounds, along with underrepresented minorities, first-generation, LGBTQ, rural and religious Americans, even MAGA Republicans.
Apprenticeship goes back so far it was named in Babylon’s Code of Hammurabi. But what’s old is new again. What was once America’s main mode of career launch – before college became the sole respectable path to a good first job – is unique among education and workforce development models in having the potential to unify the country. There may be no other way to reach dislocated and disaffected Americans who don’t want a handout. They want work, but not dead-end work. They want work with an opportunity for advancement. An apprentice nation is within our reach if we make a few common-sense changes to education and workforce policy.
Once we get our act together here – and I’m convinced it will happen within a few years – we’ll bring balance to the (work)force. And we won’t be wondering what the alternative to college is; it’ll be making a racket at the kitchen door. Colleges have been breaking bad, but change is coming. Like Ringo, apprenticeship will eat college’s lunch.
Wishing you and your family a joyous holiday season.