Four-year college is not for everyone. We need to make more pathways available to students

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Growing up, every child wanted to play as a quarterback. But as a football coach, it’s your job to make sure the other positions are filled in a way that maximizes each player’s abilities and, collectively, the team’s. A lot of students may not want to play offensive lineman at first — until they realize that they actually thrive at the position and that without them, the team falls apart.

A team full of only quarterbacks is dysfunctional. To push players exclusively to pursue one position does the players, and ultimately the team, a disservice.

Right now, our education system is essentially offering only the “quarterback” path when it pushes students to pursue a four-year college degree. That’s a problem because a traditional four-year college is not the best fit for every single student. Boxing students into one path for higher education leaves many quality jobs unfilled.

The reality is that there are multiple viable pathways available to students pursuing a higher education degree or credential. Dual enrollment programs, career and technical education, apprenticeships, and other learning opportunities can provide students with important skills that lead to good jobs and fulfilling careers.

We shouldn’t be afraid to admit that a four-year residential college may not be the best fit for every student. Many students would prefer to work with their hands rather than sit through long lectures. Other students may not want to take out mountains of debt in loans to pay for a degree that may not actually lead to sustainable employment.

Our great country is paying a price for this top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

While the pandemic has certainly placed enormous strain on workers and businesses alike, the skills gap existed even when the economy was roaring. In January 2020, there were still nearly 7 million unfilled jobs in the United States because there were not enough skilled workers to fill them. This was at a time when we had record-low unemployment and record-high workforce participation.

In some ways, the pandemic has only made the need for skilled workers greater. With people moving away from cities to more rural or suburban spaces, we need plumbers, electricians, welders, and machinists to build new houses and support the surrounding communities.

There are a number of ways we can close the skills gap and put students on the path to sustainable success.

For starters, business and industry must partner more closely with their local high schools and community colleges.

I think about the Cristo Rey network of schools, including Holy Family Cristo Rey High School in Birmingham, Alabama, which uses a corporate work-study program to partner high school students, all of whom are low-income, with internships at businesses in each student’s field of interest. The student works one day a week, and the company covers 45% of the student’s tuition. These programs expose students to real-world job environments and give them valuable professional experience.

Similarly, Airbus in Mobile, Alabama, offers local high school seniors apprenticeship opportunities to pursue careers in aerospace right out of high school. The nine-month program gives students who love working with their hands the opportunity to join a growing sector with a good-paying job. It’s a win all around for the students, the company, and the community. We need more programs such as Cristo Rey's and Airbus's across the country.

In some cases, education debt can be crippling for the student and a bad investment for the federal government, which subsidizes a significant portion of each student loan. Currently, student loans can only be used at traditional institutions of higher education to fund degrees across a wide variety of subjects, from chemical engineering to medieval basket weaving.

But some economists have proposed that those loans should also be allowed to underwrite on-the-job training at a successful company that needs more skilled workers. As Oren Cass writes at the American Compass, “The prospect of hiring and internally training inexperienced workers would instantly become an attractive opportunity rather than a risky burden.” These ideas should lead to serious debate on what our expected return on investment is with student loans.

We can also do more to make adult education accessible for those who get laid off or are looking to change careers. Right now, the U.S. spends only 0.1% of our GDP on programs that actively encourage labor force participation, the second-lowest of any developed country. Our goal should be to foster programs that actually incentivize people to find jobs or get retrained with marketable skills, rather than simply pay them not to work for long periods of time.

It's past time we as a country recommit to allowing students to explore the multiple higher education pathways available to them. Traditional college isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK. Expanding options for educational training can greatly benefit students and fill the existing skill gaps in our economy.

Everybody doesn’t need to be a quarterback. When people discover the many valuable roles out there, we can have a solid team capable of winning on the world stage.

Tommy Tuberville represents Alabama in the Senate and is a member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

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