Elizabeth Warren is truly lapping her opponents when it comes to releasing substantive policy proposals. While current media darlings like Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg are busy standing on cars and aw shucks-ing their way to the top of the polls, Sen. Warren is actually telling the voters exactly what she wants to accomplish as President. Her latest policy proposal is perhaps her most ambitious yet, and it would completely overhaul the way we fund higher education in the future.
In a Medium post published Monday, Warren outlined her plan for solving the student debt crisis, and it involves taxing the golden shower right out of the rich. Anyone with a fortune of $50 million or more will be levied an annual 2 percent tax. Those with fortunes of over a billion will pay an extra 1 percent surtax on top of that. This, she says, will impact around 75,000 very rich households in the U.S. and it will generate $2.75 trillion in government revenue over 10 years—revenue that will then be used to fund early childhood education, cancel the student debt of over 42 million Americans, and set aside $50 billion for historically black colleges and universities. But the most ambitious part of this already ambitious as hell plan is that she wants to make all public universities and community colleges free.
“College shouldn’t just be a privilege for those who can afford to take on the significant expenses associated with higher education,” she writes. “Like K-12 education, college is a basic need that should be available for free to everyone who wants to go. That’s why I’m proposing a historic new federal investment in public higher education that will eliminate the cost of tuition and fees at every public two-year and four-year college in America.”
Warren is calling this the Universal Free College program, and on the off-chance she gets past the far less qualified but far more media-savvy men running for office, it would radically change the higher education system in this country. And that’s great. At a time when the average college graduate is leaving school with nearly $40,000 in debt, it’s clear that the higher education system desperately needs changing. The cost of getting an education is this country is so high that it’s preventing generations of Americans from being able to buy houses or even afford to have children. I see absolutely no problem with taxing the rich to fix this terrible problem. (And, before you ask, yes, Warren does have a plan to keep this money in the U.S. She says she will significantly increase the IRS’s enforcement budget as well as levy a 40 percent exit tax on the net worth of ultra millionaires who try to renounce their citizenship and move their fortunes overseas.)
There is, however, one potential problem with this plan: Free college likely means more people will be enrolling, and that's not necessarily a net benefit. As much as I agree that public schools should be either low-cost or free for those who want to attend, college is not the be-all and end-all to job fulfillment. A recent study found that only 40 percent of recent college graduates get jobs that actually require a college degree. Another found that only 27 percent end up with jobs related to their major. And another study found that while 70 percent of Americans will enroll in a four-year degree program at one point, less than two-thirds will actually graduate. For some of those non-graduates, money is surely a factor. There’s nothing like the prospect of tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars of debt to dissuade you from continuing your education, and studies have shown that the people most likely to drop out are those from low-income households. But for other students, fit is as important a factor as finance, and if we had more robust vocational training programs in American high schools, perhaps more students would have the choice of making a living without investing in higher education in the first place.
Vocational curriculum in U.S. high schools used to be standard, although the motivations for incorporating vocational training were, in contemporary parlance, a bit problematic. In the early part of the 20th century, high schools that received federal funding were authorized to fund vocational training programs for the first time. Back then, secondary schools, which were once the purview of the upper and educated classes, were seeing an influx of working-class students as society industrialized and minimum age employment laws were passed. All of a sudden, poor kids needed something to do to, and high school was, naturally, where we parked them.
There were good and bad sides to this. The good side was that more people received an education; the bad side was that the quality of that education was as much determined by socioeconomic factors as it was aptitude or interest. Students from the upper classes were tracked into college prep courses; students from the lower classes were sent off to shop. There were objections to this caste system early on. John Dewey, the famed educational theorist, thought that vocational training would make America’s class divide even more intractable, and, it seems, he was right.
Over time, school attendance became mandatory in all states until at least the age of 16, and as schools saw a wider array of students, the tracking system became even more rigid. It still is, and as much as some people would like to think the American educational system is based on merit, the track you end up on usually has just as much to do with your parents’ income as your own intellect or willingness to work. When I was in elementary school in the early ‘90s, for instance, students who scored well on one standardized exam taken in third grade were moved into the incredibly poorly named “academically gifted” track. From then until high school, a small group of students would leave the regular classroom every day to go to a trailer outside, where we watched Channel One and did logic games. Entry into the program was theoretically merit-based, but there were no poor kids in my elementary or junior high school's gifted programs. And this continued throughout high school. The children of doctors and professors took honors and AP classes while the kids who lived in trailers up in the hills got class credit for sweeping the cafeteria and mowing the grass between buildings.
There were obvious flaws in this system, and vocational training has largely gone out of vogue. The passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001 required that public schools demonstrate that all students are proficient in disciplines like math and reading. This led to the shuttering of vocational programs across the country. But there’s another reason that vocational training has become unpopular: Students and parents are told, over and over, that there is one path to success in life, and a four-year college degree is the most essential stop on that path.
The problem is, it’s not. While it is true that, overall, people with college degrees tend to earn more than peers with only a high school diploma or less, the data changes drastically if you look at people who’ve successfully completed an apprenticeship. A study from the Wisconsin Department of Education found that, over a 25-year span, an electrician who completed an apprenticeship will earn around $425,000 more than someone with a bachelors in, say, teaching, social work, or journalism—and the electrician won’t be saddled with thousands of dollars in debt. And yet, fewer than 5 percent of young people in America today will train as some kind of apprentice.
There are movements within education to bring vocational training, as well as apprenticeships, back, but it’s no longer called “vocational training.” Seattle Public Schools, for instance, has a Career and Technical Education program, where students enrolled in local high schools can take classes in everything from computer animation to health care to woodworking and welding. In fact, these classes are required: Everyone must receive at least one credit in Career and Technical Education. The hope, according to Caleb Perkins, the director of SPS College & Career Readiness program, is that students will treat the classes as exploratory. They’ll find something that interests them, and take more classes in that field going forth.
While "vocational" doesn't necessarily mean manual labor or skilled trades—computer programming is also vocational—for those interested in skilled trades, there are jobs to be had: Over 1.5 million skilled trade workers will retire by 2024, and there aren’t enough people entering those fields to replace them.
Still, there's a barrier to vocational training: parents and students themselves. While Spokane, Federal Way, and other working-class towns and cities in Washington State have high enrollment in vocational programs, Seattle, a city of hyper-educated white-collar workers, lags behind. And it’s not hard to see why: Not only have parents been told for years that their kids must go to college, a four-year degree has become such a status symbol that even very wealthy parents—the kinds of parents whose kids will never need to work—are willing to bribe their kids’ way into college.
While some Americans, especially those in the middle and upper classes, may consider vocational training below them, there are models for successful vocational training programs in other places. In Germany, for instance, most students start vocational training and apprenticeships while in secondary school. For two to three years, they work part-time while receiving a salary, and after finishing school, there's a job waiting. University is nearly free, but it's also exceedingly difficult to get into, and only 30 percent of German students go on to higher education, as opposed to nearly 70 percent in the U.S. While low acceptance rates at German universities surely leads to disappointment for those who want to attend but don't qualify, Germans don't need to spend an extra four years sitting in class. They can get decent paying jobs without it.
College is great for some people. I personally loved it, although my affection for school was far less about the classes I took than it was all the social stuff in between: dating, making friends, renting out my fake ID by the hour, etc. It took me six years and tens of thousands of dollars (much of which I still owe) to finish, but I did learn how to do a keg-stand and roll a joint single-handed. I didn't get much from my coursework, but it was a fine place to park for a few years. This, I suspect, is true for many Americans: College is a safe space to wait while your brain matures a bit. That's part of its value—besides the fact that it's fun—but it still shouldn't be required to make a career.
Employers could help reverse the trend of mandatory higher ed. Some highly specialized jobs—for instance, brain surgery—should probably require higher education. But for so many other jobs, a four-year degree is an arbitrary barrier that weeds perfectly qualified candidates out. Should sitting through 16-credit hours of humanities, as was required by my college, really be compulsory to get a job as a computer programmer or a nurse? Of course not. That’s not to say there isn’t value in a liberal arts education and learning for learning’s sake, but there’s also value in training for a job and then doing it. And some companies are starting to see this, especially in tech, a field that loves stories of the college drop-out who made billions. Google, Apple, and IBM, for instance, are no longer requiring job applicants to have a degree, and if more high schools offered coding classes, I suspect more companies would join them.
If Elizabeth Warren gets her way, student debt and the exorbitant cost of public higher education will someday be a thing of the past. That would be transformative, both for students themselves and for the economy as a whole. If people aren’t saddled with debt, they will be better able to buy houses, take vacations, go out to dinner, raise a few kids, and I dearly hope her plan comes to fruition before my own debt is paid off. But we’re fooling ourselves if we continue to perpetuate the idea that college is the one true path to success. It’s a myth, and it’s one that’s going to keep wasting a lot of peoples' time and money until we kill it.