Friday, May 25, 2012

On-the-Job Learning | Casey's Last Word

The financing of higher education is one of the hottest topics in the public sphere these days.

But I haven’t seen much discussion of one of the most damaging consequences – the decline of a modern version of the medieval concept of apprenticeship.

In San Antonio, an Express-News article this week reported that students who recently graduated from or dropped out of local colleges and for-profit career schools are defaulting at higher rates than the national averages.

Clearly the debt loads that students amass in order to get through college is weighing them down.

It is exacerbated by the recession, but was a growing problem before it.

A major cause, of course, is the incessantly rising cost of college, burgeoning at an inflation rate even higher than that of healthcare.

No wonder more than two-thirds of graduating students these days rack up a debt to go to college.

And no wonder the national average of that debt in 2011 was $23,300 and growing.

Given the economy that these students have graduated into, it’s almost a wonder that the default rate isn’t higher.

I haven’t seen any studies on the matter, but I suspect it’s because many of these recent graduates are doing everything they can to pay what they owe, working any job (or in many cases, jobs) they can find.

The result is that they are not doing what would be best for them, and for the rest of us.

They are not spending their 20s in apprenticeships.

Let me explain by example – my own.

I was fortunate enough to graduate without a debt.

My parents paid most the freight, though I helped by working a variety of jobs and by choosing a low-cost university.

St. Mary’s University had just raised its tuition to $360 a semester, a bargain even in 1964.

My bachelor’s was in psychology, but I had neither the inclination nor the grades to pursue a graduate degree necessary for a career in that field.

Besides, I had been seduced by journalism.

I had worked a summer and then part-time during my senior year at the San Antonio Light, then took a job for a weekly in St. Louis.

But my big break came when, at the age of 24, I persuaded a small but ambitious national weekly to pay me to travel around the country in a camper finding and writing stories.

My monthly stipend was $800, which had to pay for all my expenses, including gas, repairs and a budgeted two motel rooms a month.

After nearly a year on the road, I talked the paper into setting me up as their “Washington bureau.”

My salary was only slightly more, enough to rent a basement apartment in a Capitol Hill neighborhood in the early stages of gentrification.

Being a one-man bureau, I got to cover Congress, the Supreme Court and the White House, including the 1972 presidential campaign.

By the time I was 30, after several years of freelancing from Boston, I had no money in the bank.

But I had developed the skills I needed to return to Texas for a career that has been rewarding in every way.

I was able to do it because in my 20s I could consciously choose my jobs on the basis of what I could learn, not what I could earn.

That’s an apprenticeship, and I couldn’t have done it if I had been saddled with a college debt.

Very few students come out of college with the skills they need to excel.

Many aren’t even sure what it is they want to do.

For many, that’s what their 20s are for.

If they did college well, what they learned was how to learn. A great preparation for an apprenticeship that for too many is no longer a possibility.

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