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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Debate about college vs. trade school complicated but necessary

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Like many ninth graders, Darius Wilson wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life after high school.

College was a possibility, but that’s expensive.

“My family isn’t that rich,” he said.

Then Wilson learned about Area 31 Career Center, where students spend half of their day getting hands-on experience so they can get a job straight out of high school or get a head start on a college degree.

Wilson is a senior now. He’s learning precision machining and is on track to leave high school with an associate’s degree.

Virtually all high school students have to make the same calculations Wilson did as a freshman. For some, family expectations and wealth dictate that they’ll go to a four-year college after high school, no questions asked.

But for plenty of others, it’s not so simple.

Jesse Johnson, who opened two local Metal Supermarkets branches, donates metal to some schools in the area so students in career programs or shop classes can get experience that may one day lead to a job.

Johnson said he’s noticed more students are beginning to think about trade careers as an alternative to a traditional university education.

“I don’t know if it’s due to parents or older siblings, but when I go into schools, kids seem to be a lot more conscious of what college is gonna cost,” he said.

Johnson guessed it could partly have to do with children growing up watching their parents pay back student loans.

Even for those students who want to go to college to study business, for example, and have the means to do so, Johnson said it’s still common for them to want to get some kind of training because it’s good practical knowledge to have, or it could also just be a hobby.

The average in-state tuition for a four-year public institution in Indiana was $7,518 for the 2018-19 school year, according to CollegeCalc, which tracks college pricing data.

And that’s just tuition. At IUPUI, for example, where in-state tuition was $9,464 for the 2018-19 school year, the school estimates all expenses would come to about $22,500 for students who live on campus.

Many proponents of higher education talk about a college degree being a so-called key to success, but some also simply argue college is a formative experience, where students can pursue their passions.

This can be a very expensive formative experience.

Terri Jett, a political science professor at Butler University, said she knows a four-year college degree isn’t the best path for everyone but hopes “we find a way to support” those students who do want a college degree.

“All people should really follow their passion,” she said, adding that starting at a less expensive community college and then transferring is another option.

Allen Wright, a freshman at KIPP Indy Legacy High, wants the benefits of both worlds. He’s interested in technical engineering but also wants to get the college experience.

“The opportunity of traveling around the world for study abroad and stuff like that, that’s why I think college would be better,” he said. 

Jett, who is also on the board at Indiana Humanities, has a liberal arts bachelor’s degree, which she thinks is “more sustainable” over the long haul because of acquired skills such as writing and communication.

That’s not just wishful thinking.

David Deming, director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, wrote in The New York Times last year about income data from the U.S. Census Bureau that show liberal arts majors start slow in earnings but eventually catch up to their peers in STEM careers.

“This is by design,” he wrote. “A liberal arts education fosters valuable ‘soft skills’ like problem-solving, critical thinking and adaptability. Such skills are hard to quantify, and they don’t create clean pathways to high-paying first jobs. But they have long-run value in a wide variety of careers.”

He also cited a 2018 survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which found the three attributes employers considered most important from college graduates were written communication, problem solving and the ability to work as part of a team.

That’s why, Jett said, it’s important for everyone, not matter what career or education path they take, to still get those “soft skills” by continuing some kind of writing outside of school, visiting the library or getting involved with organizations that have book clubs.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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