Last updated on 2013.12.19
I have some sympathy for Governor Daugaard's argument that more students should consider vocational training instead of a four-year college degree. I've seen a number of students leave high school and go straight to college as it if they were simply going from grade 12 to grade 13. Many students fail to analyze their skills and strengths and desires until they get bogged down in college courses that they realize don't really inspire them.
But should South Dakota pursue a policy that actively discourages students from seeking a university diploma? The Board of Regents thinks not, and they would offer a simple economic argument: more jobs require college degrees:
According to BLS, the number of positions requiring an associate's degree will climb by 19.1% in the United States by 2018. Similar increases are expected for jobs requiring a bachelor's degree (16.6%), master's degree (18.3%), doctoral degree (16.6%), and professional degree (17.6%). These rates of growth greatly exceed those for jobs requiring on-the-job training only [South Dakota Board of Regents, Placement Outcomes of Regental Students, Agenda Item W, December 15-16, 2011].
South Dakota is already poised to miss that economic gravy train, since we lag the nation in college graduates:
As of 2009, 25.1% of South Dakotans over 24 years old had earned a bachelor's degree or higher. South Dakota currently ranks 34th among all US states by this measure, falling short of the national rate of 27.9%. A mere 7.3% of South Dakotans hold an advanced degree, compared to 10.3% nationally; only six states had a lower proportion in 2009. Since 1990, improvements in the state's national standing in these measures have been marginal. South Dakota's comparative lack of educational attainment no doubt poses socioeconomic problems for the state's population, given the vast advantages in earning power held by postsecondary degree holders. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2010 the median annual salary for high school graduates was $32,677, compared to $40,037 for associate's degree holders, $54,184 for bachelor's degree holders, $66,398 for master's degree holders, and $80,910 for doctoral degree holders. In an increasingly knowledge-based, global economy, South Dakota's comparative lack of degree holders may place the state at a major competitive disadvantage [BOR, Dec 2011].
The governor's emphasis on vo-tech as a viable and meritorious post-high-school option is a good idea if it saves students from taking up space in university seats for a couple years and dropping out with no marketable skills. But we have to thread this needle carefully. Too much emphasis on vo-tech could hobble South Dakota with a second-best labor market. Sure, the James River Valley needs more welders and mechanics, but the economy as a whole needs more knowledge workers.
So here are the big questions: given the evolving nature of the economy, can we afford to direct more students toward non-knowledge-worker vocational training? Or must we focus on turning more unlikely college types into college material? And if the latter is true, how do we take kids who fifty years ago would have been perfectly suited for the trades and turn them into managers and analysts?