Should Apprenticeships Make a Come Back?

Last Updated Jun 3, 2011 8:13 AM EDT

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel made a lot of waves recently predicting that college is the next bubble, so it's understandable that when he offered $100,000 fellowships for college students to drop out of school and start businesses, the move spurred a lot of discussion on the value of college education in general (including this fascinating debate posted by BNET's expert on young entrepreneurs, Donna Fenn).

As Fenn's post suggests, fans of college education note that it's not meant to be primarily vocational, but to prepare students to lead a more thoughtful, responsible and hopefully more fulfilling life (and, one could argue, to be decently informed voters in a democracy). Meanwhile, critics of college make the sensible point that the costs are increasingly obscene and that the payoff isn't worth the expenditure for many.

But some commentators are taking a subtler middle way, suggesting that the real lesson of Thiel's program shouldn't be to defend or condemn college in general, but to prompt more careful thinking about the conventional wisdom that college is for everyone. Rather than say college is or isn't valuable in general, these folks argue that we've deluded ourselves into the lazy and unrealistic idea that there's only one path to a decent adult life and that nearly all kids should blindly follow it into higher ed. In doing so, we've neglected all sorts of other training options, like apprenticeships.

Writing a lengthy, thoughtful response to Thiel's program on Business Insider, VC Mark Suster includes among his topics for consideration, "the challenges of a system that aims to educate all equally." He writes,

I somehow think a system that goes back to a model of "apprenticeships" or "trade guilds" might churn out people more ready for the workforce.... while college needs to be an option for all, there has to be a middle ground between a four-year university degree and somebody only employable in a low-income job. This is where training programs come into play. Maybe two years of computer training would suit some people better than four years of book study? Maybe off-shoring could become more on-shoring and helping drum up employment in places like Detroit.
Suster isn't the only one to have this reaction. Conservative site Townhall.com (yes, I'm surprised I'm linking to it too) offers similar reflections from Katie Kieffer. She argues that, "before you feel tempted to write out that six-figure tuition check, consider doing yourselves and your child a favor by honestly assessing the skills that your child demonstrates." If a young person is not particularly academic, or exceptionally entrepreneurial, don't blindly stumble into college, she concludes.

With a new survey finding 43 percent of recent college grads work at a job that does not require a four-year degree, perhaps Kieffer and Suster have a point that the culture's obsession with university blinds us from finding better ways to train interested young people for the jobs that are actually out there. (Meanwhile, loosely regulated for-profit schools are cashing in on demand for alternatives to college -- not always ethically.)

What do you think: do young people need more training alternatives or does increasing apprenticeships and vocational training simply consign some kids to a second-class education?

Want more info on Thiel's program? Check out the video below from The Economist.
Read More on BNET: (Image courtesy of Flickr user TechCrunch50-08, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.