Creating a credible alternative to college

Much was made after the recent presidential election about how the Democrats in particular neglected the "forgotten half," a term coined decades ago by the William T. Grant Foundation for those young people who do not go to college. The "forgotten half" and the jobs they engage should not be viewed pejoratively, however, as is arguably the case today when the gold standard is a four-year college education.

While some of the "forgotten half" may want to attend college and cannot do so because of high cost or demanding life circumstances, there are others who simply wish to prepare for technical jobs in a non-college setting. Unfortunately, credible alternative education that is supported by federal financial aid, guaranteed for quality and has garnered respect in the broader society does not exist in the United States. But it should; the nation needs a robust, well-respected job-preparation alternative to college that begins in high school and seamlessly continues into advanced education and training.


There is a way forward, but it will require several bold commitments on the part of political and education leadership, business and government, as well as the public, much of which needs to disavow the belief that professional self-worth derives solely from a college education.

We must look beyond our borders for inspiration and models, all the while acknowledging that adaptation to the U.S. is still necessary. Nearly 25 years ago, one of my colleagues at the Johns Hopkins University, Arne Tangerlini, and I argued in another Baltimore Sun op-ed that we "would do well to consider Germany's 'dual system' of academics and apprenticeships." The argument still holds and, in fact, is more urgent than ever.


Participants in Germany's dual system split their education time, learning academic subjects on some days and job-specific skills at a work site on others. As we noted a quarter century ago, the apprentices are "paid a training wage, and in exchange for a relatively inexpensive source of labor, businesses assume a direct responsibility for educating the work force."

Alternative vocational education must include traditional academic coursework, as witnessed in the German "dual system" model cited above. Teaching technical skills merely to meet the requirements of a current job is not sufficient. To deny the "forgotten half " rigorous academics is to rob them of flexibility to adapt to ever changing job conditions. Lack of continuing academics would also deny them the option later in life to go to college. The distinction, however, from traditional education is that the academics in alternative education should be tailored explicitly to the job skills pursued.

This kind of technical instruction should enable students to understand the world around them and give them the tools to question authority so that they are not taken advantage of or oppressed — or thought of as somehow less vital to our democracy. They should also gain the knowledge and skills to advocate for themselves and be poised to anticipate change in their profession, in themselves and in those around them, and to deal with that change in a positive way. Vocational education and education for a democracy are not mutually exclusive, as is often thought.

Without a legitimate alternative education not involving college, the "forgotten half" will remain so, and their indifference and frustration will only intensify.

William G. Durden is president emeritus of Dickinson College, a joint appointment professor of research at Johns Hopkins University's School of Education and chief global engagement officer of the International University Alliance; his email is