Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum has been catching a lot of heat for suggesting that college may not be right for every child in America. Thrown into the mix of criticism by his detractors is the fact that Santorum himself has a bachelor's and two masters degrees along with this little chestnut: "Do you think Santorum's seven children won't go to college?"
Every entrepreneur who has interviewed job applicants knows that there's a mismatch between the workforce America has and the workforce it needs. So it's understandable that some people believe Santorum's position is exactly the last thing business owners need.
With all due respect, those people have it wrong. All Santorum is trying to say, I think, is there are several other paths that could have the same positive effect for individuals that college would—and may be better for the economy. These alternatives could be part of what you need to fill the skills gap in your workforce now.
First, let's put aside Santorum's red-meat-baiting rhetoric about college professors brain-washing our young to become Marxists. We know the guy is running for president and he's calculatingly trying to get the anti-Romney, anti-wealthy, anti-Northeast vote. He's in a chess game and he's playing chess. That's his job.
But there's a very simple message in Santorum's statements, which merits attention. He says "There are people in this country that have no desire or no aspiration to go to college because they have a different set of skills and desires and dreams that don't include college." He goes on to say, "There [are] technical schools, additional training, vocational training. There's skills and apprenticeships. There's all sorts of things that people can do to upgrade their skills to be very productive."
I totally agree. Look, college can serve (at least) two purposes. First, colleges can broaden your horizons and teach you how to think critically. These are great outcomes most commonly associated with a liberal arts education. Second, college can teach you real world skills, such as how to be a nurse or a teacher. This, too, is worthwhile. But if your goal is to learn a skill or a trade, there are many other ways to go about it. As Santorum points out, there are vocational training and apprenticeships. What's more, there can be no doubt that many people who've gone through a traditional four-year college have learned more on the job than they do in the classroom.
And yet Santorum's point about educational alternatives is consistently met by equal parts statistics and shortsightedness. Guilty of both, Steve Rattner shared some U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers on Morning Joe recently that certainly bring focus to the skills-deficit of our current workforce.
Rattner observes, "there's a demand for higher-skilled workers and not enough of a supply." He then concludes that Americans are making the right choice when they send their kids to college in higher and higher numbers. Maybe it's just the entrepreneur in me but when I see these statistics, I come to a different conclusion: there simply aren't enough great options between college and just high school so college becomes the default choice for many families.
One successful public experiment that began its life at New York City's Department of Education has seen the same entrepreneurial light. Recently, the founders of the "School of One" program left to start "New Classrooms," a nationwide non-profit program that uses technology to create extremely customized learning programs. With backers like Bill Gates (a college dropout), and other bold-faced entrepreneurial names, I find this kind of thinking to be a much more creative response to the evolution of education than beating the drum for the college life.
Wouldn't it be great if the world of educational choices were as varied as the aisles of a supermarket; where each person can choose a path best suited to his or her needs and temperament? President Obama had it right. In his call to educational arms, he said, "I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training." Only thing is: That sounds very similar to what Rick Santorum was saying, too.