For years the mantra has been: get a college degree if you possibly can. It’s true that the benefits of a college degree generally outweigh the costs, but given the price, many students and their families are taking a closer look. Authors of a new report from the Brookings Institution conclude that college may not be the best investment for certain schools, specific fields of study, occupations and individuals. Those who start but don’t finish college seem to pay a particularly high price. The value of a bachelor’s degree and its alternatives for the 21st century’s labor market.


  • Isabel Sawhill Senior fellow of economic studies at The Brookings Institution.
  • Nina Marks President of Collegiate Directions Inc., and principal of Marks Education.
  • Robert Lerman Professor of economics at American University and fellow at Urban Institute.

Should Everyone Go To College?

Research and infographics by Brookings Institution. Reprinted here by permission of Brookings Institution. All rights reserved.


  • 10:06:55

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. A college degree is widely recognized as the ticket to a better job and a more secure future. But it's not for everyone. Joining me to talk about who benefits most and least from a college degree: Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, Nina Marks president of Collegiate Directions, and Robert Lerman, professor of economics at American University and a fellow at Urban Institute. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send an email to Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning and welcome to all of you.

  • 10:07:49

    MS. ISABEL SAWHILLGood morning.

  • 10:07:49

    MS. NINA MARKSGood morning.

  • 10:07:50

    PROF. ROBERT LERMANGood morning.

  • 10:07:50

    REHMGood to see you all. Isabel Sawhill, I'll start with you. You're co-author with Stephanie Owen of a paper released by Brookings yesterday titled, "Should Everyone Go to College?" Tell us about the report and why you undertook the investigation.

  • 10:08:16

    SAWHILLI think, for years, we've been telling young people and their parents that a college degree is the ticket to success in American life. And there is some truth to that, but I don't think college is for everyone. And I think people have to go into this decision-making about what to do after high school with a much greater sense of what their particular interests are and what different institutions have to offer.

  • 10:08:50

    SAWHILLThey also need to understand that going to college and dropping out with a whole lot of student debt is not a good idea because if you dropout, the degree is not there and the years you spent, they aren't exactly wasted, but they're not all that valuable. And in the meantime, you've taken on this debt, which actually may make you worse off than if you had done something different with your life.

  • 10:09:19

    REHMFor whom does college make complete sense?

  • 10:09:25

    SAWHILLWell, I think when we think college, we traditionally think about a B.A. degree. And I think what we need to get away from is the idea that everyone needs a B.A. degree at a four-year college. We do need more post-secondary training. We need a lot more people to be trained in skills that are in short supply, talking about, you know, welders and electricians and computer programmers and all of the people we need in modern economy, which we're not producing enough of now as opposed to people who have a B.A. in history or philosophy or the arts. And this is something we've really got to work on.

  • 10:10:11

    REHMIsabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, co-author of the new report titled "Should Everyone Go to College?" Nina Marks, how do you see it, the nation's unemployment rates seem to suggest that something out there is not meshing, the young people who leave college don't seem to be fitting into the nation's need for particular jobs.

  • 10:10:52

    MARKSI think that's an excellent point, and we have to start earlier in high school and do better. One of the problems with deciding who should go to college and who should not is who decides. What we see with the low-income, first-generation, you know, large numbers of non-native English-speaking students whom we serve at Collegiate Directions is that they need earlier identification and broader support.

  • 10:11:20

    MARKSSo if you just look too late in the picture, they may have picked a major that isn't actually a good fit for them. They may have not made a post-secondary choice that is the right one for them. And they may not -- as the excellent Hoxby-Avery report points out, they may not even have considered options that would, in many ways, have been a much better and successful fit.

  • 10:11:42

    REHMSo how soon do you think they begin -- they need to begin to prepare?

  • 10:11:48

    MARKSWell, ideally, of course, you would begin those, you know, students who grow up in a more networked and fortunate families, you know, are prepared from their early years with conversations at dinner and beyond, starting in middle school. If it couldn't start earlier would be a good thing. But, you know, we have for schools across this country a tool that is too rarely used.

  • 10:12:12

    MARKSAnd in our school support program, which serves all students, not just students who would go to selective four-year colleges, we're really emphasizing using data that high schools already have, such as the tenth grade PSAT scores, which predict likely success in more challenging courses.

  • 10:12:30

    REHMNina Marks, she's president of Collegiate Directions and principal of Marks Education. Turning to you, Robert Lerman, what do we know about the kinds of jobs college graduates are getting?

  • 10:12:48

    LERMANWell, we have an understanding that perhaps, maybe 60 percent are getting jobs that really require a B.A. degree, but something on your -- at least when they start. Now most college graduates ultimately do pretty well. The problem is that we have about 30 to 35 percent of people graduating with a B.A., another seven or 8 percent graduating with an associate's degree, and that leaves more than half of our young people not having a valued credential.

  • 10:13:32

    LERMANNow, the question is, well, how do we get them into a good labor market situation, a rewarding career? Should we use the college route and just sort of try harder? Or should we use some alternatives? And I believe that what -- the evidence is pretty striking from other countries and even from our own country that strengthening an apprenticeship initiative, strengthening the apprenticeship concept here would go a long way toward helping a lot of people.

  • 10:14:05

    REHMAll right. Is the apprenticeship concept in opposition to going to college?

  • 10:14:13

    LERMANNo. But it widens the range of opportunities for people. Right now, the problem with saying, well, not everybody should go to college is that, well, what else are they going to do? So some years ago, I noticed that even of the bottom quarter of people in high school, 90 percent of them said they were going to go to college. Now, they weren't going to succeed in college.

  • 10:14:37

    LERMANBut when you asked them, what are you going to do, they didn't have anything else to say. So we need to have a very robust set of alternative approaches that combine work and learning. And, in fact, apprenticeship you might think of as college plus because they're learning at the workplace, but they're also taking the equivalent of community college courses.

  • 10:14:59

    REHMRobert Lerman, professor of economics at American University, a fellow at the Urban Institute. So, Robert Lerman, how would you answer the question posed by the Brookings Institution report? Should everyone go to college?

  • 10:15:24

    LERMANNo. But I think that we have to provide better non-college alternatives. And that's what other countries are able to do.

  • 10:15:33

    REHMAll right. And as I look back on my own junior -- high school education, always provided was mechanical drawing, mechanics, other alternatives. Have those programs been eliminated in high school to offer the alternatives that Robert Lerman is talking about, Nina?

  • 10:16:08

    MARKSThat is a really good question, and this is where really understanding what high school education needs to be about becomes crucial. What we see in our work with public schools, particularly public high schools, is that you can have so-called academies, which can serve a very helpful, useful purpose in giving you a taste of a career early on.

  • 10:16:34

    MARKSBut unless you understand how to advise a student on -- what we just talked about a moment ago, earlier identification, keeping doors open, not de facto tracking kids, it's not a word we like to use, but too often, and this is noted by the college board for decades, students who are academically prepared for challenging courses don't take them. So you don't want to have an academy option that absorbs so much of the school day that it preempts an opportunity to take more conventional core academic classes. And we have seen that happening.

  • 10:17:12

    REHMIsabel, how do you see that? Is it that high school classes are not offering a broad range of alternatives and that everyone simply assumes, as Robert Lerman says, that even if you're in the bottom quarter, you'll go on to college.

  • 10:17:36

    SAWHILLAs Nina says, there are some very good programs at the high school level now that try to combine work-based learning with regular academics. I think she's right that we have a tremendous concern in this country about tracking students too early and therefore limiting their options. But we don't have very good information that we give students, or their parents, about the differences between different types of institutions.

  • 10:18:08

    SAWHILLIf you go to a selective school and you get a degree from that school, you're going to do very well. I mean, the value of a college B.A. is quite high relative to the cost. The average is $570,000 in extra income over your lifetime from getting a B.A. The problem is that too many people are not graduating.

  • 10:18:39

    REHMIsabel Sawhill, senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution, co-author of "Should Everyone Go to College?"

  • 10:20:05

    REHMAnd as always, many of you have questions. We've received many emails. People are waiting on the phones. We'll try to get to your questions as quickly as possible. Quick definition here. "Your guests keep mentioning Bachelor of Arts. But what about a B.S., Bachelor of Science? Are you lumping together those two career paths?" Robert Lerman.

  • 10:20:38

    LERMANWell, the outcomes, as Belle finds, for people in more scientific disciplines is much higher gains. But up until now, we've been talking about the average of B.A. and B.S. together. But clearly, there is a big difference.

  • 10:20:56

    REHMAll right. And here's a question from John here in Washington, "Skyrocketing college expenses are forcing us to redefine how we value higher education. Students graduate with crippling debt. I wish someone would create a no-frills, bare-bones option for students because I just don't understand how cost could jump so much across the board in just two decades." He ends by saying, "Frankly, I wish I were a plumber." Belle, it costs an awful lot to go to school -- college these days.

  • 10:21:48

    SAWHILLIt costs a tremendous amount. The average across the country, all types of institutions, is about $100,000 now for four years. Granted...

  • 10:21:59

    REHMThat's a low average, is it not?

  • 10:22:01

    SAWHILLThat is low. If you're talking about elite, private schools, if you're talking about the Harvards and the Princetons and the Stanfords, it's much, much higher than that. So that is a broad average. It is less expensive to go to a community college. And many people are going to community college now, and I think they're doing quite a good job. But 70 percent of students who go to community colleges don't finish.

  • 10:22:27

    SAWHILLSo this is a big problem, and many of them, when they first start, need remedial education, which is very, very expensive. So the costs are very high, and some people are taking out a lot of student loans. And we now have about $1 trillion of student loan debt on household balance sheets. It's the largest item after mortgage interest. And I think we could have a new bubble forming here. I'm quite worried about it.

  • 10:22:56

    REHMAbout student loans.

  • 10:22:57

    SAWHILLAbout student loans and the extent to which people are going to be able to repay them.

  • 10:23:03

    REHMAnd here's a tweet. "Federal student loans are set to double in July, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. Elizabeth Warren's bill would reduce to 0.75 percent, the same rate as big banks get." Not likely to happen, Nina?

  • 10:23:30

    MARKSWell, what we're seeing is if you look at financial aid offers from the perspective of the most important people, who are the people who receive them, they are still extraordinarily obscure. They're difficult to understand. People don't understand the difference. If you're first-generation, perhaps non-native speaker, you don't understand the difference between a subsidized and an unsubsidized loan. You don't understand what work-study means. When do you do it? How do you do it?

  • 10:24:03

    MARKSThere are so many different components in cost of attendance that, we understand, underlie the full, rich liberal arts typically, liberal arts experience. But for the kids who most need to understand it, they're not always even able to ask the right questions. And so they take on more debt than they should with the sequester. This is going to become an issue this year more than ever.

  • 10:24:29

    REHMHow do you see it, Robert?

  • 10:24:31

    LERMANWell, first of all, I want to respond about the plumber.

  • 10:24:36

    LERMANGetting into a good plumbing apprenticeship program is as difficult as getting into...

  • 10:24:42


  • 10:24:43 elite college. I know of a program in Baltimore, for example, a very good union program where they have 1,200 applicants for 120 positions. So the problem is that we are not expanding those options. And whenever I hear, well, we should lower the interest rate and so on, I ask myself, well, OK, what's that going to cost the federal government? And the reality is that we're spending something on the order of $300 billion, state and local and federal governments, for the college option and virtually nothing for the apprenticeship approach.

  • 10:25:23

    REHMSo have...

  • 10:25:24

    LERMANAnd so if we just shifted even a little bit of money, we could expand a number of employers who are offering very good skills development programs along with and paying for college so that people will earn while they learn and yield a quality credential.

  • 10:25:44

    REHMBut let me offer another scenario, which is a mindset that has occurred in this country, which is everybody needs to go to a high-paying university because that's going to get me the increased lifetime wages. Nobody wants to be a plumber, except you talk about the thousands of people waiting in line just to get in that program.

  • 10:26:16

    LERMANWell, if we offer good options, people will come.

  • 10:26:19

    REHMAll right. Nina.

  • 10:26:21

    MARKSActually, I think this notion that everybody wants to go to, you know, a four-year fabulous college is a relatively -- it's differentiated by income and background. What the Hoxby-Avery study showed is that of the 25- to 35,000 students across this country who actually would be considered not just eligible, but superb candidates for selective colleges, A minus or better high school GPAs, 90th percentile or above scores, only 8 percent of them even apply.

  • 10:26:56

    MARKSI think we come back to what are the typical sources of information for the people for whom candidly a four-year degree, if applicable, could make the most difference. And it's our low-income, first-gen kids. No doubt about it.

  • 10:27:12

    REHMIsabel Sawhill, here's an email from Carrie in Cincinnati, who says, "I got a two-year degree that ended up costing me over $40,000. Yes, I do feel ripped off and do not recommend it to anyone. I also feel a large part of the problem is that trades and people who work with their hands have been looked down upon. But you cannot outsource plumbing."

  • 10:27:51

    SAWHILLAmen. I totally agree with this individual. And I think we really do need to change our mindset about this. We need to give much greater respect to the people who have mastered a trade. And we need to stop telling all of our kids that the only way to be successful is to "go to college."

  • 10:28:14

    REHMSo you would answer the questions posed by the title of your report. Should everyone go to college? How?

  • 10:28:25

    SAWHILLI would say no, not everyone should. But I would then add, as Nina has, that there is the question of who's going to decide. We do need to keep the options open. And I think there's also the question of what do you do instead. And I'm not arguing that you don't need other kinds of programs of the sort that Bob Lerman is talking about.

  • 10:28:48

    REHMWhat percentage of American high school graduates now go to college?

  • 10:28:55

    SAWHILLIt's about 70 percent. It's interesting because the aspiration to go to college has increased enormously. People have heard the message. And if so you do a poll of high school graduates and ask how many expect to go to college, it's almost universal. But -- and then a very large proportion do get enrolled in something.

  • 10:29:14

    SAWHILLBut the dropout rates are very high, and it's questionable how much is learned for that $40,000 or that $100,000, whatever you've paid. And in the end, it's not necessarily the most efficient way to acquire the skills and the learning you need. I mean, we haven't talked yet about new online options, but they have some real potential.

  • 10:29:39

    REHMAnd what happens to the college dropouts?

  • 10:29:44

    SAWHILLThey are a little better off than if they had never enrolled in college at all, but probably not enough better off in most cases -- it obviously varies from individual to individual -- to warrant the costs that they have incurred, both the direct costs for fees in tuition and the fact that they've given up earning some income during that period.

  • 10:30:07

    REHMAnd for those who do enroll in, say, a four-year college, what's the percentage who drop out?

  • 10:30:16

    SAWHILLAbout 40 percent.

  • 10:30:18

    REHMThat's a pretty high figure. How does this rate, Nina, compare to other countries?

  • 10:30:26

    MARKSWell, I think we have a much greater expectation in this country that, as Bella's point -- Isabel has pointed out, that, you know, you have an opportunity to go to college. We don't track you in the same ways that some other countries do, although if you look at some of the European countries, there are ways to get back on track. You can earn your way back in if you -- when you're older.

  • 10:30:50

    MARKSBut the appalling statistic I would add to the one that Isabel just quoted is that in our low-income kids, in that population -- low-income, first-generation students who beat the odds and actually make it into a four-year institution -- only 11 percent are graduating in six years, 11 percent. And what happens in those situations is there is this gigantic negative ripple effect that goes through the family, the community, the high school.

  • 10:31:20

    REHMDescribe that ripple effect.

  • 10:31:21

    MARKSWell, what is the point of even trying? And it's not that everybody, you know, should go to college, you know? But as we say, it's -- what is wrong with a plumber or a welder taking an AP chemistry class, you know? It's not going to be the end of the world. Let students challenge themselves appropriately and then find the right postsecondary outcome for them. But when people drop out with debt, the message is don't even try.

  • 10:31:54

    LERMANI think one issue is the maturity of the young people and the idea that everybody should go from high school into college. Other countries have gap years, other countries have better options, so that when you complete, let's say, an apprenticeship in some advanced engineering approach that you could take with an employer and courses, you gain a sense of I know how to learn. I'm interested. I want to expand my learning. If you have very little experience in the labor market or with life, you tend to be more immature about and take for granted the opportunity that colleges do offer.

  • 10:32:42

    REHMAre apprenticeships paid for?

  • 10:32:43

    LERMANAnd so -- apprenticeships are paid, yes, and you're earning something while you learn, and it's a great option.

  • 10:32:53

    REHMRobert Lerman, professor of economics at American University, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. Let's go to Gloucester, Mass. Good morning, Wendy. You're on the air.

  • 10:33:17

    WENDYHi, Diane. I love your show.

  • 10:33:18

    REHMThank you.

  • 10:33:19

    WENDYI've taught GED classes to adults for about the last 20 years, and I've been thinking for a long time that the push toward college for everyone is really wrongheaded. For my students -- many of my students -- it's not only unrealistic. It's unreasonable for their goals. What's happening now with this push toward college is that there's going to be a new GED coming out in 2014, which is being touted as better preparation for those who go to college and for careers, and it will be for those who pass.

  • 10:33:52

    WENDYBut many of my students who are immigrants won't be able to pass for a variety of reasons. And in Massachusetts, that shuts the door on virtually any of the kinds of alternative training programs for trades and so forth that everybody else has been talking about.

  • 10:34:09


  • 10:34:10

    MARKSYou know, I absolutely agree. This goes back to doing a much better job of advising on core skills earlier for all students. One of the critical deficits in this country is reading skills, and we need to do a much better job earlier. This will only benefit you whatever you end up doing, but that's one of the critical issues, I think, with success with GEDs as well.

  • 10:34:40

    REHMIsabel, Wendy in Massachusetts spoke about the push to go to college. Where is that push coming from?

  • 10:34:54

    SAWHILLI think it's in the ether. I think it's in our culture right now. I -- one of the reasons that motivate me to work with Stephanie Owen to write this report is because I felt it had become so dominant in our culture that it needed a little bit of a correction. And I read over and over again about the value of a college degree, which is fine for some people, but not everyone. And I think there are sources of information that students and their families can look at now that would help them make this decision more wisely.

  • 10:35:30

    REHMAnd where are those sources of information, Robert?

  • 10:35:34

    LERMANWell, Nina can talk about the information, but let me talk about the culture. I think we have this notion that somehow equality is sameness, having everybody do the same thing. And if people are different, then imposing sameness is really an unequal strategy, and that's what we've done. We've taken people who could be great in middle skill positions be the best person in that field, and we've made them into somebody who's sort of a mediocre person in the pure academic setting.

  • 10:36:09


  • 10:36:11

    MARKSYou know, really, information is not readily available. The advising in this country is in terrible shape. We offer very little guidance on how to be a good adviser, a curricula adviser, a college adviser. The national ratio of college guidance advisers to students is 476 students to one counselor. You're not getting help.

  • 10:36:36

    REHMSo when people come to you, how do you evaluate whether that young person should go on to college, or how do you say to them, you know, perhaps you ought to think about an apprenticeship?

  • 10:36:58

    MARKSInterestingly, the first thing that we look for, which, I think, would probably resonate with everybody here, is the desire to go to college. You have to want this. It's not a God-given right, and it's not for everybody. Beyond that, there's a lot that you can work on in skills and in academic curriculum.

  • 10:37:21

    REHMNina Marks, president of Collegiate Directions and principal of Marks Education. We will take a short break here. When we come back, more of your email, your phone calls, your tweets, your messages on Facebook. Stay with us.

  • 10:40:05

    REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about college degrees, whether everyone should go to college and whether it's worth it. Here is an email from Torch, (sp?) who says, "Your guests so far are missing the obvious point. Whether employees need a college degree or not, employers are requiring one even for menial jobs.

  • 10:40:38

    REHM"I work for one of the largest companies in the world. Our collectors are required to have a college degree. There is no reason a college degree should be required for a bill collector, and yet that is a requirement of the position. Until that changes, the employee is in at untenable situation." Isabel.

  • 10:41:13

    SAWHILLI think that's a really good point. It's absolutely true. And it reflects the fact that more and more people are going to college, and that has diluted the value of a college degree, I'm afraid. And it does speak also to what we've been talking about, which is the importance of having a certifiable skill, a more specific skill and not just a generalist college degree.

  • 10:41:38

    REHMAll right. Let's go to St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Sean. Let's try that again. Shawn, are you there?

  • 10:41:50

    SEANYes. Can you hear me?

  • 10:41:51

    REHMGo right ahead, sir.

  • 10:41:53

    SEANCan you hear me?

  • 10:41:53


  • 10:41:54

    SEANOK. My wife, myself and my brother-in-law and a bunch of my family members all have bachelor degrees, and none of us are (unintelligible)...

  • 10:42:03

    REHMOh, dear.

  • 10:42:04

    SEAN…yes. But we can't do -- we're not even doing anything in our degree fields, none of us. I'm working for the post office. They don't care if I have a degree. And I've got bills, student loan bills that I'm never going to get to pay probably.

  • 10:42:20

    REHMSo there you have it from the ground. And he's got a B.A. His wife has two B.A.s. His brother-in-law has a B.A. What's going on here, Robert?

  • 10:42:36

    LERMANWell, this is a great example of not coordinating the demand -- the educational structure with the structure of the labor market.

  • 10:42:45


  • 10:42:47

    LERMANAnd what we need is a much closer connection. And again, when you see in other countries the ability of young people to start with an employer but to take college-level courses alongside, then you know that that's a field that is going to be in demand because the employers are actually spending money to help train that individual.

  • 10:43:12

    REHMOK. So you mentioned a plumbing apprentice program. How many other apprentice programs are out there?

  • 10:43:22

    LERMANWell, in the United States, we only have about 330,000 apprentices right now. That's the stock. So we have maybe 100,000 going -- 120,000 going in per year. Now, this is the problem of the supply. That is employers are not offering enough. And why aren't they? Because they don't know how to do it.

  • 10:43:44

    LERMANIn South Carolina, where they had an initiative to help employers learn about it, they've quadrupled or actually eightfold increase in the number of apprentices being offered in the skill positions, in printing, in a whole variety of fields, not just construction. In fact, construction is a small percentage of that increase. And in other countries now, in England, you have 500,000 people entering apprenticeships, as many has entered high school -- college.

  • 10:44:15


  • 10:44:16

    LERMANBut we have to have -- we have to coordinate the supply of offers with the demand by young people for those positions.

  • 10:44:24

    REHMBut don't you then get back to that tracking problem, Nina, that is determining at an early age not only who will succeed or not succeed in college but then, as the English have done in the past, putting them on an early track toward some other labor-involving job?

  • 10:44:57

    MARKSYou know, absolutely. We need to have, particularly, I think, for our most at-risk kids, which would be our low income in our first generation population, we need to have lots of role models and mentors earlier. And more significantly, you shouldn't be raised thinking there's only one avenue open to you. You should understand a bit more.

  • 10:45:19

    MARKSOne of the critical deficits there is that a lot of first generation low-income students don't know what it means actually to be in a particular job. They only hear about it. They have an image of it. Actually, doing that work is quite a surprise to them. We have kids that come to collegiate directions who say, I want to be an engineer. I really want to be an engineer. I don't like math.

  • 10:45:47

    MARKSYou know, I want to be an engineer. I know. And you say, well...

  • 10:45:52

    MARKSYou know, I know.

  • 10:45:53

    REHMPull it together.

  • 10:45:55

    MARKSWell, it's just that you don't really necessarily know, depending on what your parents and your older family members do.

  • 10:46:01

    REHMWell, are you also getting to the deficit in counseling in high schools?

  • 10:46:09

    MARKSCritical issue, absolutely critical.

  • 10:46:10

    REHMAnd how many counselors there are per student and what those counselors are saying? Are they part of the push toward college?

  • 10:46:25

    MARKSYou know, and it doesn't necessarily even need to be a push toward college. It needs to be a push, as everyone here has been saying, to sort of think about your potential opportunities, to look for what is the best post-secondary fit for you.

  • 10:46:40

    REHMAnd to push you toward being realistic, Isabel.

  • 10:46:44


  • 10:46:46

    SAWHILLDefinitely, we need to push people to be more realistic, and I think that there are -- I think the counseling and advising system is in trouble and is going to be in greater trouble, going forward. We heard that with some people we met with yesterday who know this area much better than I do. With the lack of money at both the federal and the state level, we're going to see cutbacks in that area and already it's not very good.

  • 10:47:15

    SAWHILLNow, there are some websites that people should know about. One is called PayScale. It ranks colleges depending upon what they provide in the way of good earnings down the road and gives other useful information that you can search. And then there's also Department of Education website called the College Scorecard, and it's still being developed, but it can be very helpful to students and their parents and even to counselors who don't yet know about it.

  • 10:47:47

    REHMBut is the Department of Education itself part of the problem? Is it also pushing college education?

  • 10:47:58

    SAWHILLWell, there probably needs to be more conversation between the Department of Education and the Department of Labor about their joint mission of making people both college and career ready, and I think some of the same skills that are needed for career readiness or need for college readiness. That goes to the inadequate preparation at the K-12 level, which is a big -- is the big elephant in the room here. We wouldn't be having these problems if we had a stronger K-12 system.

  • 10:48:31

    REHMAll right.

  • 10:48:32


  • 10:48:32

    REHMLet's go now to Pittsburg, Pa. Good morning, Susan.

  • 10:48:37

    SUSANHi. Can you hear me?

  • 10:48:38

    REHMCertainly can. Go right ahead.

  • 10:48:39

    SUSANOh, you have a blooming voice. OK. Here in Pittsburgh, we have something that was started by Bill Strickland. It's the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, and attached to that is a job training program. And he has done exactly what you -- most of you have been talking been about, which is that he has gone to corporations in the Pittsburgh area and ask them what they need to have applicants be trained in their ability to do.

  • 10:49:06

    SUSANSo, for example, he has contacted with Bayer -- it has a big presence here in Pittsburgh -- and people are trained in the sciences according to what Bayer needs. Now, these aren't easy programs to get into. They all require skill -- not skills but intelligence, I guess you'd say, and willingness to work. But there is definitely a program to work pathway.

  • 10:49:35

    REHMAll right. But, Susan, let me just ask, specifically, I presume from what you're saying, they're not demanding a four-year education -- four-year college education to begin that program.

  • 10:49:51

    SUSANHigh school.

  • 10:49:52

    REHMHigh school education?

  • 10:49:53

    SUSAN(word?) tests, you know...

  • 10:49:55


  • 10:49:55

    REHM...entrance test.

  • 10:49:56


  • 10:49:56

    SUSANBut (unintelligible) that, he also grows orchids. Bill Strickland is a very interesting person. He grew up in the Manchester area. He's an African-American. In high school, he was just about to become a street kid. But in his high school was a ceramics teacher, a very famous ceramics teacher as it turns out. But he was attracted to this man's room. It was painted in yellow. Everything else was drab. The man always had coffee on and was always playing jazz.

  • 10:50:25

    REHMThat's so interesting. Robert Lerman, it's exactly that kind of program that you not only know about but would like to see expanded.

  • 10:50:37

    LERMANRight. And it also links into the counseling issue because once you have sufficient opportunities that involve earning and learning and being at the workplace, you have a built-in mentor who's the person who's teaching you at the workplace and who's helping you and who's watching you. And we don't have that kind of link between young people and labor market opportunities at all. So even though we have very -- let's say, we don't have enough college counselors, we have almost no labor market counselors in high schools.

  • 10:51:19

    REHMSo one would hope, Isabel, that the Brookings Institution study labeled "Should Everyone Go to College" might begin a dialogue between the Department of Education and the Department of Labor to begin to develop new ideas, new pathways.

  • 10:51:44

    SAWHILLI think that's right. And I think we need a broader dialogue amongst all of us about what we want for our kids and what we tell them they need to do to be successful. And we need to get beyond this idea that being a -- skilled in a skilled trade is somehow rather second-class citizenship. I'm afraid, in this country, its still is, to some extent, still viewed that way. It shouldn't be. And so we need high-quality programs to get away from that.

  • 10:52:15

    REHMAll right. Let's go to San Antonio, Texas. Tony, good morning to you. Tony, are you there?

  • 10:52:24

    TONYYes, I am. Can you hear me?

  • 10:52:25

    REHMYes. Go right ahead, please.

  • 10:52:28

    TONYThank you very much for taking my call.

  • 10:52:29


  • 10:52:30

    TONYI am a plumber. I have been a plumber for 30 years, and I benefited from an apprentice program. That I came to -- basically, my brother-in-law was a plumber. He said, hey, come on down. I'm going to show you a trade. And this was after drifting for three, four years out of high school. I didn't benefit -- or at least there wasn't any counseling when I was in high school back in the '70s guiding you toward a trade.

  • 10:52:56

    TONYIt wasn't really guiding me towards college either. But I had two counselors, my parents, and they both worked hard. And they both said this is what it take, you know, demonstrated through their actions what it takes to be successful on life. That's what I did. I went out. I found my own program.

  • 10:53:14

    REHMTony, congratulations to you. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." He makes a very strong point about parental guidance.

  • 10:53:26

    MARKSAnd I was going to say that I'd love to be able to say on air that the most -- we've talked about high school advising. What becomes incredibly critical also is college advising, plus, if you do go to college, the sustained guidance. And what we see is there's got to be some continuity. You need role models or mentors for kids who are going to do something that may not be what their parents are doing, where the parents cannot be the critical supports at home.

  • 10:53:54

    MARKSSomebody who knows them well enough to get them through tough times, whether it's being a plumber or whether it's being, you know, at a community college or a four-year college, sustained advising.

  • 10:54:04


  • 10:54:05

    LERMANI think -- I want to go back to Belle's -- your point and Belle's point about education and labor departments. This is working on, let's say, the supply of labor side. We also need to work on the demand side by employers. So what I would recommend is a much stronger role for the Department of Commerce together with Labor and Education, and have the Commerce Department as well as Labor Department push employers and help employers to learn about the value of apprenticeships for them, for their productivity, for their innovation, for their quality of workforce.

  • 10:54:43

    LERMANWhat you see in other countries very often is that employers who invest in apprenticeships are able to recoup the cost of that apprenticeship within the apprenticeship period itself. And then afterwards, they have people that they really know, they know what, you know, they have an occupational credential and they can move forward in their organization.

  • 10:55:04

    SAWHILLI just want to reinforce Bob's point about this. We have, too often in the past, had training programs that weren't linked to actual jobs and weren't linked to what employers needed. And we are now having, with lots of actual enthusiasm on the part of the current administration, a lot more attention given to programs where the training is customized to meet the needs of the employer. And that's very important.

  • 10:55:30

    REHMSo if one is going to college, Isabel, you say that not all majors, not all fields of study are the same in terms of future earning ability.

  • 10:55:47

    SAWHILLThat's right. The data are quite striking in terms of what majors really pay off well in the labor market, and it's pretty much what you'd expect. I mean, engineering, math, business, the harder sciences as opposed to going into the arts or theatre or even education, sort of softer, more social areas. Now, I think there are going to be people who want to do that just because they have a passion for it.

  • 10:56:16


  • 10:56:17

    SAWHILLAnd we shouldn't judge every decision that anyone makes by the amount of money they're going to make. There are going to be people who go to a particular college and take a particular major for reasons that have nothing to do with earnings. But they should know that they're making a sacrifice when they do that.

  • 10:56:35

    REHMI thank you all for being here today. I want to close this program by just mentioning that I had a wonderful high school education. I had absolutely no college education. I came here to WAMU and worked as an apprentice as a volunteer for 10 months and then was hired. Here I am 34 years later. I just wanted to mention that.

  • 10:57:15

    MARKSGreat news.

  • 10:57:15

    REHMIsabel Sawhill, Nina Marks, Robert Lerman, thank you all so much.

  • 10:57:20

    MARKSThank you so much.

  • 10:57:21

    SAWHILLThank you.

  • 10:57:21

    LERMANThank you.

  • 10:57:22

    REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 10:57:26

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Casey Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn and Danielle Knight. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones.

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