Higher education is expensive, and generations of students have been indoctrinated with the idea that receiving a bachelor's or even graduate degree is their only path to success. What that has meant for far too many students is years of paying off student loans while they search for a job that utilizes their degree. The number of entrants to the workforce who actually find jobs in their chosen fields is shrinking. Meanwhile, the fields in which jobs are readily available - growing, even - require skill and technical training, not a master's degree in communications.
Ohio University President Roderick McDavis has been touting an effort by the school to put in place a system that would guarantee students a fixed cost for their education, over the course of 12 semesters. In addition to providing students and parents with the security of knowing exactly what they will owe each year, the system would also encourage students to work toward graduating in four years. Right now, the four-year graduation rate at OU is approximately 40 percent. A great many more students continue to rack up debt for another year or two.
I speak from experience when I say debt from student loans can haunt a person for far longer than an 18-year-old anticipates. And I was one of the lucky ones. I was able to attend a quality public university, in-state, with a few scholarships to help along the way. These days, entry-level pay rates aren't much higher than they were (ahem, cough, cough) years ago, but the cost of getting a degree has soared.
However, a quick search of an Internet jobs site, for the Parkersburg area, reveals openings for nurses and other health care specialists, receptionists and billing experts, truck drivers, mechanics, contractors, landscapers, electricians and even hydrodemolition technicians. That last one sounds kind of fun - and the listed requirements are experience, a commercial driver's license, mechanical ability, good work ethic, problem solving and leadership skills.
But here's the rub, for decades parents have increasingly instilled the belief in their children that to "do better" means an expensive degree and a desk job. A stigma has been attached to skilled trades and hard work, the very things in which this country used to take such pride. Moms and dads have persuaded children who want to work with their intelligence AND their hands that such jobs are not good enough. So the student-loan bills pile up, the unemployment ranks swell and good jobs go unfilled.
There is a television show called "Dirty Jobs." Its host, Mike Rowe, developed such admiration for the men and women he watched at work that he created a website, mikeroweworks.com, on which he promotes skilled trades. On the site, Rowe says "We're lending money we don't have, to students who can't pay it back, to educate them for jobs that no longer exist. That's nuts."
It is nuts. But it is the result of a cycle of which we are all a part.
Institutions such as Ohio University are to be commended for attempting to address the problem of crippling debt for students, with efforts such as the four-year, fixed-rate program. And, of course, those schools offer courses of study in nursing and other fields that can do a lot of good for some students. But education is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. High school sophomores and juniors meeting with their guidance counselors should hear about options such as vocational and technical schools, trade guilds and apprenticeships. No student should discount a career option because of the nagging fear that the skill or trade they have chosen to pursue might not be perceived as good enough.
Those of us who flip on lights and computers at desk jobs each weekday morning could not do so if not for the folks extracting the resources and manning the equipment that brings us our electricity. We depend on them, and yet, many whose children might express interest in such fields are too quick to dampen that enthusiasm with admonitions such as "No. You're going to college, and that's final." And please understand I'm not suggesting that there are not careers within those fields that do require a college education. But the sentiment seems not to be "you are going to learn how to do something useful," but rather "you are going to attend a four-year (at least) institution of higher learning because that's just the thing to do." They might just as well add "and it doesn't matter how much you end up owing."
There is no place in today's economy for such snobbery, nor is there room for failure to acknowledge how much we all depend on those doing the work.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org