Tuesday, March 20 , 2018, 10:39 pm | Overcast 55º


Harris Sherline: Who Needs a College Education?

Not everyone is — or should be — college material; a changing world requires an emphasis on technical training.

As I have listened to and read the seemingly endless news stories about the cost of a college education, the problems of obtaining loans and grants for tuition, the amount of debt many students are burdened with after graduation, and the extent of defaults on student loans, I have changed my attitude about the importance of a college education.


I have a college degree, and my career has been largely based on my education. After dropping out of college and delaying my return, I did not graduate until I was in my 30s, then entered public accounting and quickly went into practice on my own. For the past 50 years, almost everything I have accomplished in business has been based on or greatly influenced by my education and professional training. So, for me, a college education proved to be a major asset and the foundation of my livelihood.

However, I now believe that we place too much emphasis on a college education and, what’s more, the particular college or university our young people attend, such as the Ivy League schools. It has become far too important to many parents that their children not only attend college but one with a prestigious reputation, such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Stanford, MIT or CalTech.

Although my career has been based on my education, the particular school I went to didn’t matter one bit. Throughout my long business and professional career, no one ever asked me what school I attended or what my grade-point average was.  It didn’t matter, and they didn’t care. People care only that you can perform.  If you can’t do that, a degree from the most prestigious university in the world won’t help.

Teaching our children how to function in the world at large is not stressed enough: how to balance a checkbook, manage a budget, how our economic system works, and how to provide a service that people are willing to pay for.

Easy for me to say, you may think. After all, I have a college education. True. But, my experience of more than 50 years has led to the conclusion that not everyone is college material.

Recent reports indicate a very high percentage of America’s students drop out of high school. The education they are receiving is not relevant to them.  Greater emphasis should be placed on encouraging more young people to attend a technical or trade school for computer technology, hotel or restaurant services, construction trades, health care techs, auto mechanics, bookkeeping and office management, etc.

Walter Gardner, writing in the Sacramento Bee, noted: “By requiring virtually all students to take courses specifically designed for the college-bound, we unavoidably set the stage for failure.  The truth is that not all students have the desire or the ability to pursue a four-year degree.  And when they see little or no connection between what they’re forced to study and their future plans or interests, they either act out or drop out. ... According to Alan S. Blinder, former vice chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, the only jobs that will be safe in the next two decades will be those that can’t be delivered offshore electronically.  As a result, plumbers, electricians and auto mechanics, for example, will be earning a comfortable living, while their academically educated counterparts will be at risk of having their jobs terminated” (“U.S. needs to learn that college isn’t for everyone,” April 11).

A college education may well be the preferred choice from an academic point of view, but it is not particularly important for most occupations.  Europe has had a system of apprenticeships that dates back to the Middle Ages, and something along those lines in America would make sense.

Gardner also made the following observations, among others:

• Our competitors “routinely sort out students into academic and vocational tracks without any compunction.”

• "Singapore undertakes this differentiation with its primary-school leaving exam, and Finland does so based on grades at the end of the ninth grade. … Not surprisingly, both countries have remarkably high graduation rates.”

• "Not to be outdone, China in the early 1990s overhauled its schools to place greater emphasis on job training."

• "For the United   States, the time has come to disabuse itself of the comforting delusion that college is for everyone.”

We should stop warehousing young people in our colleges and wasting valuable resources in the process.

Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his own blog, Opinionfest.com.

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