With the publication of my new book, I spent much of November traveling around the country talking about apprenticeships. I had many memorable interactions, none more than with a woman in Boston who buttonholed me on the subject of plumbers, roofers, and general contractors. In the past year she'd had four major problems with her house. While other attendees waited for a word, she took me on an excruciating home improvement tour, including biblical-scale flooding from an upstairs bathroom, then impressed upon me how hard it was to find tradespeople who'd return her calls let alone show up to do the work. After we talked about strategies for increasing the flow of talent into the building trades, and as I looked around to assess how upset other people were getting, she paused and went in an entirely unexpected direction:
So you're probably wondering why so many things went wrong with my house in such a short period of time. Well, I did too. And so I looked up old maps of the area. And it turns out my house was built on a Native American burial ground…
Not unlike her upstairs bathroom, my heart fell through the floor – and not just because this conversation wasn’t going to end anytime soon. Suddenly we'd left safe ground for something spookier. I’d recently re-watched Poltergeist with my 12-year-old son Zev. In that 1982 film co-written and produced (but clearly not directed) by Steven Spielberg, a new California suburb – Cuesta Verde – had been built atop a cemetery with only the gravestones relocated. So I have an idea of how something like this turns out; by the end, the imploded Poltergeist house needed more than a few tradespeople. (And if you're wondering, the film doesn't hold up. Although it’s useful if you'd like to help your child develop a healthy fear of clowns.)
This holiday season, the spirit I have in mind isn’t nearly as nefarious. A decade before Poltergeist, around the time Spielberg began directing TV movies, philosopher John Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice. Rawls argued we ought to care about justice, which he defines as fairness. If we did, we’d establish a different social contract. New organizing principles are most judiciously arrived at by positing a quasi-spiritual original position: without knowing anything about the life you’re about to be born into (i.e., no certainty on abilities, family situation, or income – behind what Rawls memorably called a “veil of ignorance”), what rules would you choose? Rawls’ answer is that you’d first ensure U.S. constitution-like basic rights and liberties. Then because you’d have an even chance of being disadvantaged, and some likelihood of ending up at the bottom of barrel, you’d set up a society that would protect the least advantaged. And, hey, if spending the holidays reading A Theory of Justice doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, allow me to suggest A Theory of Justice: The Musical, a romp through thousands of years of political philosophy with singing and dancing Plato, Kant, and Rawls.
The holiday season is time for musicals and thinking about the least advantaged. This is clear from increased attendance at musicals as well as higher holiday philanthropy; something like one quarter of donations to nonprofits occur in December. So in a Rawlsian spirit, let’s end 2023 by reviewing our organizing principles for postsecondary education and career launch in the context of how they’re working for the least advantaged.
Each and every year, America tosses over $500 billion of taxpayer money into the Jaws of over 4,000 colleges and universities. This is what we spend in the form of federal student aid, federal funding for research, and state support of public university and community college systems. It doesn’t include hundreds of billions in additional spending on making income-driven repayment more generous, targeted loan forgiveness, or the progressive holy grail of blanket student loan forgiveness.
But while multi-year degree programs provide revenue predictability for colleges and universities, they don’t seem to be working very well for the least advantaged. Six-year completion rates for Black, Hispanic, and Native American students range from 40-50%; as life gets in the way, disadvantaged students need E.T. (extra time) to complete college. Pell Grant recipients complete college at rates 10-15% lower than higher income peers. Consequently, more than half of all degrees awarded to traditional-age students go to children from families with household incomes of at least $116K. And while 50% of twenty-four year-olds with family incomes over $90K have earned bachelor’s degrees, the number for families with incomes under $35K is less than 6 percent. Overall, students from top-quartile income families earn bachelor’s degrees five times more frequently than bottom-quartile students.
Completion for disadvantaged students is a mess in part because it’s inextricably bound up with affordability: the more financially precarious the degree pathway, the more low-income students stop, drop, and roll out the door. For more than thirty years, colleges and universities have increased tuition at roughly double the rate of inflation – and recently room, board, and student fees at double the level of tuition – funding things like Jurassic Park-ing lots. This result is a price that’s too damn high. Education Trust estimates in-state tuition at public colleges is at least $3,000 too high in nearly every state, and more than $10,000 too high in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and South Carolina.
If today’s original-position-spirits know they’re going to be born in America, they’re hoping to be dumb and rich instead of bright and poor; rich kindergarten kids with bottom-half test stores have a 70% probability of reaching the middle class or beyond, whereas poor kids with top-half test scores only have a 30% chance. It’s hard to imagine a more awful Minority Report.
Even though Rawls worked at a university, if he weren’t a ghost, I’m pretty sure he’d be aghast. (Perhaps his poltergeist is haunting Harvard, which could explain the recent bonehead moves and deserved PR disaster.) The career-launch curtain America has chosen – curtain #1 – hides a house of horrors for disadvantaged students. But there are alternatives for incremental or differential investment:
And now it’s time for Close Encounters of the Third Kind with each curtain. Rawls would argue (or sing!) that justice demands selecting a system that best serves the worst off. So let’s rip off our veil of ignorance and try to see the big picture in a way that some college presidents ( and their coteries of highly paid advisors) are demonstrably incapable of.
Curtains 1-3 leave the worst off unemployed or underemployed and playing Catch Me if You Can with debt collectors. Why? Because they fail to guarantee employment outcomes. Far too many – perhaps a majority of – disadvantaged students currently graduate from not-a-job majors into unemployment or underemployment.
In contrast, only earn-and-learn has the potential to avoid War of the Worlds. Because apprenticeships are full-time jobs that pay a living wage, with built-in formal and informal training, wage progression, and career pathways, the worst-case apprentice is someone who works for a couple years and decides she doesn’t like it and needs to switch gears. But she’s fully capable of doing so because: (1) she’s earned and has no debt; (2) she’s learned about her interests and capabilities; so (3) she’s better positioned to make a more informed decision about a future pathway, which could involve peeking behind riskier curtains.
Among developed countries, the U.S. has invested least in earn-and-learn. For every dollar we bet on curtain #4, we’re betting over $1,000 on curtain #1 and – in this administration – at least a couple hundred on curtain #2. Most other developed countries are an order of magnitude higher on earn-and-learn.
As my friend Ted Dintersmith, author of What School Could Be, told me, “we’ve set up a College or Chipotle choice for young Americans: go on to college or get a crappy job in a fast-food restaurant.” There’s nothing in between. So disadvantaged students are forced to choose between unbearable risk and unbearable jobs i.e., frontline dead-end jobs. That’s not a choice Rawls or any original-position-spirit would support.
Saving Private Ryan – or any disadvantaged Tom, Dick, or Ryan – from the limited choice of college or Chipotle would benefit everyone, not just the least advantaged. Real post-high-school earn-and-learn options across healthcare, financial services, tech, logistics, manufacturing, and other sectors would resuscitate career and technical education and career discovery in high school. They would reinvigorate youth workforce participation, leading to much-needed independence and development of soft skills seemingly lacking in Gen Z. And they’d provided crucial work experience to combat the coming experience gap from the rise of A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
The biggest downside of earn-and-learn isn’t the risk for students. It’s the challenge of building it. While starting a school and charging students tuition is straightforward, earn-and-learn is trickier. Apprenticeships require willing employers, training providers, and an organization standing in the middle, setting up and running the program, doing its level best to hide the wiring for everyone else. But if we care about justice, the additional complexity is well worth tackling. While our imbalanced approach to career launch has us trapped, it isn’t (The) Terminal. Earn-and-learn is the way out – a path to the Empire of the Sun.
That’s why I was in Boston talking about apprenticeships, hearing haunting stories about Native American burial grounds. It’s scary, particularly if you’re one of the 3 million making a living from the current system. But if we’re even somewhat successful in building earn-and-learn infrastructure in America, it would be a Christmas or Chanukah present of biblical proportions.
Happy holidays to you and your family.