Three out of every 10 American high-school students drop out each year—about 7,200 a day, enough to distinguish our country as having one of the highest high-school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. Things are equally bleak when it comes to college: less than 60 percent of students who enter a four-year college end up earning their degree from that institution within six years (of course, some of these students simply transfer and get their degree somewhere else, but you get the idea).
But what would this data look like if education offered more students a clearer avenue to a rewarding career?
Among its other problems, the U.S. education system suffers from a one-size-fits-all formula that seeks to push every kid onto the same college-bound track. But if a detour, or a new road entirely, were considered—one that offered an alternative to the default option that in fact doesn’t suit everybody—students would increase their chances not only of getting that diploma but also of securing a satisfying job afterward.
Why not make more effort in schools to find out what each student is most excited about and has an aptitude for, and help him or her develop in that direction? For some students, the chosen field might be manual labor or craftsmanship. And that should be acceptable. Manual labor, after all, is important and necessary work, requiring an array of skills and abilities. Recognizing the value of that expertise by giving it a place in schools might be a first step toward raising our estimation of it in society as a whole.
As Matthew Crawford, a philosopher-turned-motorcycle-repairman, recently observed in The New York Times Magazine, “The job suffers from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid.”
In fact, however, it’s not only not stupid—it may represent an incredibly savvy career choice these days. Unlike many traditional white-collar office jobs, these jobs are well positioned in today’s economy, because they don’t run the same risk of being outsourced—who’s going to wait for someone to fly in from India to fix a toilet or repair a car?
Of course, we’d need to guard carefully against stereotyping: it would be a giant step backward if we were to find students of certain ethnic or cultural backgrounds being consistently steered toward certain kinds of careers. And all students, regardless of what direction they choose, should be given a solid academic grounding so as to make switching paths later on an option. But with these caveats, surely this approach could go a long way toward keeping more kids in school, and ensuring that those who do stay get a lot more out of it.