The traditional higher-education system works great for lots of students. But it forces countless others, like my nephews, to choose between two bad options: either enter a four-year bachelor’s degree program for which they are not ready, academically or emotionally; or pursue some kind of job-focused training program that, while valuable, may effectively put a ceiling on their careers.
It’s a dilemma millions of middle- and upper-middle-class families know well, but it’s even worse for working-class and poor families. At the end of the day, one of my nephew’s parents could afford to pay for a four-year degree, even if they knew a lot of the coursework would wash over their son. But for many low-income students, spending four years in school before even starting a career is not an option. That’s part of the reason why so many low-income students end up in technical training programs—not because they are not interested in earning a bachelor’s degree, but because they need to earn a decent income along the way. Many of those technical programs lead to good-paying jobs. What they don’t lead to is a bachelor’s degree. And without a B.A., there is only so far you can reasonably expect to rise in this country.
It’s been said that the bachelor degree is now the high school diploma of 30 years ago. And part of the reverence for BAs is the fact that it’s easy to weed out applicants, even if they are highly qualified for a job. Obviously, a bachelor’s degree is no guarantee of competence, but there should be alternative paths to a BA for those that lack the means to take four years off.