- There’s no doubt that starting out married life with student debt and the stress of low-wage work in today’s labor market does little to form a solid foundation for family formation. Tweet This
- We should expand our definition of success to include blue-collar work, while also reforming higher education so that a working-class kid who wants to get a college degree will find the support to make it happen. Tweet This
At age 17, Megan was extroverted, charming, and popular, earning straight A’s in school with her plans for college all mapped out. But her home life was not as glossy. Her parents divorced when she was nine, in large part because her dad blew all his money on “drugs and alcohol and other ladies.” After the divorce, Megan moved with her mom to Alabama, where she learned from a young age to take care of herself because her mom “was always working” to support them.
When her paternal grandmother passed away, Megan, who was a junior in high school at the time, went back to Ohio for the funeral. There, she saw how much her dad, once sober, was struggling after falling “off the wagon.” Megan called her mom from his house, announcing that she was dropping out of school to take care of him. Although her mom begged her to reconsider, Megan saw it as a simple decision: “I’m his only family, only child,” she explains. “So, I felt kinda obligated to stay.”
Not long after, her dad was in jail again serving a two-year sentence, leaving Megan homeless, and living out of her car for a year. “I felt like crap about myself after dropping out of school,” she says. She could have gone back to her mom or reached out to friends. But shame kept her isolated. Instead, she worked as many shifts as she could get as a waitress, and eventually earned her GED. Three days after her 18th birthday, she had saved enough to move from her car to her own apartment.
“I’ve always been very strong willed and free minded,” Megan says. “And, if crap’s hitting the fan, you just buck down, and deal with it, and find the right path to take.”
She sometimes made serious mistakes before finding the right path. Like when she turned 18, and the credit card offers rolled in, and she shattered her credit. But at least she avoided the drugs and alcohol that derailed her father. She also never gave up on her dream of college. Somewhere along life’s way, she’d picked up on the message that if you wanted to do anything worthwhile in life, going to college was an important “stepping stone.”
A co-worker at a restaurant encouraged Megan to apply for financial aid to attend the local community college, where she spent the next two years studying Art History. By sheer grit, she graduated, which was a feat in itself, given that the national graduation rate for two-year public colleges like the one she attended is just under 20 percent. But for all her hard work, she was rewarded with student loans and what she sees now as a useless associates degree since she is still serving beer at a sports bar to “dirty old men.”
“Just follow my heart,” she remembers telling herself when she decided to study art history. “Now it’s like, ‘Oh, well, I should have followed my wallet.’”
In the interviews my husband David and I did with over 100 young adults in southwestern Ohio, stories like Megan’s were unfortunately common. The pipeline from high school to college to career is not working for the majority of young adults who, like Megan, hail from modest backgrounds. The proposition that something needs to be fixed in the American education system is uncontroversial enough, but what is the solution?
Megan’s story came to mind as I read Oren Cass’s new and well-received book, The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America. Cass takes on the topic in a chapter entitled, “How the Other Half Learns,” where he writes, “Policymakers continue to emphasize college attendance, but when enrollment bears no relationship to qualifications or completion, the result is generally wasted years and burdensome debt.” This is particularly troublesome for those with the fewest resources. As Cass puts it,
Pushing every student in that direction [college] yields the occasional Horatio Alger story, which warms the heart and stands for the proposition that the same could happen to anyone, even though its rarity, in fact, underscores the opposite. The approach is most beneficial to those least affected by it, who benefit from innate and environmental advantages, who can flourish in college, and who can now justify a broad array of economic policies that further benefit themselves by claiming that everyone else can follow their path too. It is most harmful to those already disadvantaged, who must now navigate a system that has proven repeatedly its inability to meet their needs.
Instead, Cass points to Germany’s apprenticeship system, among other models, and suggests the reintroduction of a tracking system—a voluntary sorting into either college-prep or occupational training programs during high school.
This arrangement could be especially fruitful with public/private collaboration. Cass highlights one program operated by the Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education in which employers sponsor students, who spend three days working at a job and two days in the classroom earning an associate’s degree. The combination of education and work means that students have an income, graduate debt-free, and gain work experience—and more than 90% of graduates in this program land jobs paying $50,000 to $75,000 in the first year. Remarkably, Cass says that education reform along these lines could mean that “with no net increase in education spending, America could offer every 10th grader additional classroom learning, a subsidized three-year apprenticeship for which he might also be paid, and a savings account with $20,000 to $40,000 awaiting him upon completion.”
When I read that, I thought of the young adults I know who’ve been carrying student debt like a noose around the neck while working low-paying service jobs completely unrelated to their fields of study. It’s not just the financial burden and limitations imposed, but the psychological burden of feeling like you’re wasting your life, as though your inability to launch a meaningful career post-graduation is a sign of personal failure.
As Megan, then married and with a son, told me, “I want to set that example for [my son], which I did go to college and everything. But I want to set the example for him that you need to go to school and do something that you love and make money at it. I don’t want him to be like, ‘Oh, my mom’s a waitress.’”
I’m hopeful that smoother pathways to the trades and vocational education is a step in the direction of stronger families, although I do have some concerns about a tracking system—one of them being how to implement it so that the students who choose to go the vocational route don’t end up getting stigmatized as dumb or “less than.”
How much different might it have been for Megan and others like her if we had a system that could smooth the transition from education to vocation? The implications would not only affect individuals but resound in the family. In the first year of her marriage, Megan and her husband found themselves arguing frequently, unsure how they would pay the bills, working opposite shifts and welcoming a baby into the world. They separated for a month, patched things up temporarily, but eventually divorced. The reasons were many and complex. But there’s no doubt that starting out married life with student debt and the stress of low-wage work in today’s labor market does little to form a solid foundation for family formation.
I’m hopeful that smoother pathways to the trades and vocational education is a step in the direction of stronger families, although I do have some concerns about a tracking system—one of them being how to implement it so that the students who choose to go the vocational route don’t end up getting stigmatized as dumb or “less than.” This, of course, is a larger cultural problem with the way we view blue collar vs. white collar work, but it seems like it would be a hindrance to the effectiveness of a tracking system. The local public high school for our town actually does offer a vocational track and partners with a well-respected Career Center in the area. But I’ve spoken with a handful of young adults who chose not to go this route because of the stigma, even though later in life they regretted it when their peers who went to the Career Center ended up with better-paying jobs.
For example, Mark, a 30-something underemployed contract laborer we spoke to, remembered that the predominant attitude at his high school was, “If you’re dumb, you go to the career center.” He went the college prep route because he was in the top 10% of his class and didn’t want to sell himself short, something he now regrets. “Would’ve killed two birds with one stone in those four years,” he said. Megan and Mark, like so many others, enrolled in college thinking that it was the ticket to the middle class, but that failed to materialize.
But what if a working-class kid does want a college degree? Like the friend of ours who works at the family business by day but studies for a theology degree by night? Or the young electrician apprentice who was reading Tolkien at the age of six but went the trade route because college was too expensive? Or my husband, who after high school graduation spent two years working in a warehouse, unsure what to do next? No one else in his family had ever gone to college and the thought of applying was completely overwhelming.
Perhaps it’s the Millennial in me, but there is a real tension present in Megan’s words about following her heart or her wallet. While many times life requires us to take what we can get and do work that we’d rather not do, I also identify with the desire to find work that is meaningful and that suits the temperament and aptitude of the individual. I think of the factory workers who advise their children to go to college so that they can avoid the mind-numbing, body-breaking repetition of the assembly line. Most well-educated men and women seek work they enjoy. At its best, a tracking system could help everyone find their niche. (As Cass points out, the vocational track is not a “death sentence.” Executives in Europe have gotten their start as apprentices.) But the danger is that a tracking system would funnel kids from blue-collar families into one track and kids from college-educated families into the other for reasons that have little to do with individual interest and aptitude and more with social class.
In our newfound eagerness to promote blue-collar trades and embrace vocational education, we should not forget that people from working-class homes have the right to pursue their passions and interests as well; they don’t all have to be factory workers and welders. We should expand our definition of success to include blue-collar work, while also reforming higher education so that a working-class kid who wants to get a college degree will find the support to make it happen.
Amber Lapp is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and, along with her husband David, co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, a qualitative research inquiry into how white, working-class young adults form families and think about marriage.