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For many, college isn't worth the debt [Commentary]

President Barack Obama's recent grant award to three Prince George's county schools for the development of student apprenticeship programs in high-demand Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) industries, is a sign of a paradigm shift in American education. Traditional higher education is no longer the guaranteed pathway to successful, prosperous careers and wealth. President Obama and governmental stakeholders are recognizing that skilled job-training or apprenticeship programs in diverse fields are the best solutions to improve economic development for generations of young Americans.

Today, Millennials, such as myself, are drowning in college debt of up to $200,000. But is the education worth it? For most of us, no. The American higher education system pushes many students through four-year colleges and universities, only for graduates to require an advance degree to find gainful employment. Many adults with bachelor degrees struggle to find employment because of a lack of expertise in any field and poor work experience.

This pathway usually results in high education debt. Nearly one in five U.S. households (19 percent) owed money on student loans in 2010 — more than double the proportion in 1989, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center Report. The average student loan balance outstanding in 2010 was $26,682, but 10 percent of student debtors owed more than $61,894. Students who attended for-profit colleges are often in the worst shape. They represent just 13 percent of the higher education population but 31 percent of the federal student loan debt, and one in five of them defaults on their loans within three years. The Obama administration recently released new regulations aimed at getting for-profit colleges to better prepare students for the working world. There is also a high unemployment rate for young Americans already struggling with high debt. During an economic downturn, companies are more likely to re-evaluate their workforce and only hire workers who bring experience. The rate of unemployment among individuals ages 20 to 24 was around 13 percent last year, according to a Department of Labor report — twice the national rate of unemployment. The percentage was almost 20 percent in 2010.

The state of the current economy does not bode well for young Americans, and a shift from traditional higher education institutions to hands-on training such as apprenticeships and vocational programs is the most viable way to strengthen the economy before entire generations are financially scarred.

A report by Center for American Progress, "The High Cost of Youth Unemployment," contends that European countries' labor markets are friendlier to younger employees because they have comprehensive apprenticeship and vocational programs that aid in the transition from students to workers. Many European countries, such as Germany, have a lower unemployment rate for young adults. The high student debt and unemployment rate for young Americans has now forced the United States to follow the lead of European countries and invest in the younger generations by developing comprehensive apprenticeship and vocational programs.

While apprenticeship programs are fully developed in the skilled trade occupations such as electricians, welders, forklift operators or plumbers, the STEM industry is rapidly growing, and many young Americans would benefit from immediate job and skill training in this area. The lack of skilled training in the STEM industry has already had a negative impact on our economy. Many American technology companies are forced to hire foreign workers because of the shortage of skilled talent in America, while manufacturing jobs are steadily declining. STEM careers have grown three times as much as non-STEM jobs and will continue to increase by almost 20 percent by 2017. The development of apprenticeship and job training programs for STEM careers will improve opportunities for future generations and young Americans today.

Maryland has recently taken steps in promoting the importance of investing in quality job training by developing the EARN (Employment Advancement Right Now) Maryland Grant Program. EARN Maryland funds training programs that are focused on occupational skill development in various competitive fields such as information technology and health care. This paradigm shift should persuade counties and cities to also encourage school systems and industries to focus on developing apprenticeship or occupational training programs.

Governmental and business focus on developing comprehensive apprenticeship programs will not only curtail student debt for future generations but would improve employment rates for many young Americans.

Wala Blegay is a labor attorney who currently serves on the Prince George's County Human Relations Commission and previously served on the Governor's Task Force to Study Economic Development and Apprenticeships. Her email is wblegay@gmail.com.


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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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