Last month, President Donald Trump discussed his plan for education policy to bolster vocational schooling options as university alternatives, while also uplifting a wider array of students. His vocal support for vocational schools aligned with the release of economics professor Bryan Caplan’s new book, The Case Against Education, in which Caplan argues against taking the traditional four-year college route — and removing public funding of it altogether. Although problematic, these two system-shocking reformation ideas suggest there is an inconsistency in what we perceive the purpose of our education system to be — one that we need to agree on soon.
Trump intends to maneuver a larger national investment in workforce development by means of encouraging job training through vocational schooling. He posits that by opening more vocational schools and encouraging high school graduates to attain job-training, more students will be able to fulfill their potential, and in turn, contribute to the workforce. Caplan, on the other hand, argues that the existing educational system is grossly overrated and encourages students to value grades over knowledge, ultimately leading to credential inflation and a lack of preparedness for the “real world.”
After reading Caplan’s argument and analyzing Trump’s educational plans, the narrative against traditional universities as post-high school options is not the core focus. Whether they are aware of it, at the center of both ideas for reformation lies a deeper sentiment they seem to indirectly address: How do we guarantee students’ preparedness to benefit and succeed in society?
While both Trump and Caplan develop their ideas from commendable intention — that is, changing the education system to improve society — in both cases, the ultimate outcome would be problematic. They each attempt to reform education by focusing on the future of the workforce without realizing the enriching effects of the system currently in place. The education system is a tool in society to generate the minds of upcoming generations, built with intention toward a specific idea. With no clear image of what a desirable future looks like, how can they expect to agree on education system changes?
The president’s prioritization of workforce preparedness is a sentiment most people can get behind, but his adamancy of doing so through encouraging vocational schooling is blind to the current state of the labor force. At the rate technology is developing, the rate of unemployment among industry workers is declining. Automation is decreasing the demand for human workers in trades that deal with automotive, electronic, metal, plastic and chemical industries — all trades which vocational schools are geared toward.
The lack of vocational job demand does not translate to cutting publicly funded higher education completely, although Caplan seems to think so. In his book, he contentiously argues that education is a waste of time and money for everyone involved. From a student’s perspective, they dedicate four years to receive a degree and whopping debt. From the government’s perspective, millions of federal funding pours into public education while racking up national debt.
But beyond the issue of money, Caplan criticizes the amount of input time lacking any valuable output, in the sense that a bachelor’s degree translates to base requirement for any entry-level position. Caplan’s solution to better student’s education is to not fix what is broken — but to cut it out completely. His all-or-nothing moxie is thought-provoking and even commendable, but impractical when it comes down to the dominating educational structure in our society.
The real issue behind these flak-attracting opinions on education reform is how we mold students to be best prepared to enter and develop society for the better. Both Trump and Caplan are seeing the education system as it is and trying to change it according to their own opinions. But what both their ideas lack is foresight. If education reform policy is aimed at increasing employment, will vocational schools fulfill that objective? If not, what will? This is what we need to start focusing on.
The current education system leaves students with significant debt and waters down bachelor degree value, and vocational schools feed workers into a closing industry. There is, indeed, a call for education reformation. The answer is not subjective to experience, but lies in consensus on how to use education as a means of moving society in the right direction. Before drastically changing the present education system or cutting it completely, as a society, we must decide what exactly a desirable future looks like.