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SD Transcript: Redefining higher education in the 21st century

Originally published in the San Diego Transcript (subscription required)

Americans have many ways of defining what it is to be successful. For decades, one of the universally accepted measures of success is earning a college degree.

In a controversial new book generating a lot of media coverage and conversation, George Mason University economist Dr. Bryan Caplan argues in “The Case Against Education” a college degree is greatly over-valued. Caplan says the return on investment is primarily in social “signaling” to prospective employers, not the accumulation of essential skills.

Caplan recommends rethinking whether high school graduates and their families should

be saddling themselves with enormous amounts of debt for college degrees that do not yield the perceived benefits.

As a business owner, employer, and an advocate of alternative avenues to success in my role as board chairman of the Associated Builders and Contractors of San Diego, I could not agree more with Dr. Caplan.

Education systems across North America have become polarized with their focus on pushing students to what is traditionally deemed as “higher education,” instead of increasing the bandwidth of opportunity to our children.

Well-meaning educators have increasingly focused on the need for high school graduates to attend college. Approximately two-thirds of all California high school graduates today continue on to a community college, public or private college or university in the U.S.

What happens then? In 2016, just 48 percent of California community college students earned a degree, a certificate, or transferred to a four-year college or university after six years. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the six-year graduation rate for the California State University system following a ten-year graduation results push is now 57 percent.

What happened to everyone else? Some were unprepared for college level study. Their financial circumstances didn’t permit them to finish. Others realize no matter how much they were urged to attend college, it was not the right fit. They were not succeeding and needed to consider an alternative path. Now, they are saddled with college debt, no degree, and diminished prospects.

Even for those who graduate, their sense of accomplish is dashed by reality. Now, when college or university graduates exit their teachings with a bachelor’s degree, the job market does not consider it enough to differentiate the potential job seeker from the others in the marketplace (with exceptions for specific degrees such as engineering).

For the vast majority, a degree now shows the capability of learning, no more. In order to seek a higher paid job based on education, the student needs to continually enroll in more education, creating a massive debt to income ratio for the new entrant into adult life. Some young people never dig out from under this debt, delaying home ownership and even marriage and children.

Where Dr. Caplan and I agree wholeheartedly is in what we should do about it: focus more on providing high quality, vocationally focused education after high school.

Professional trades such as construction give new adults the opportunity to maximize their earning years much earlier than compounded higher education can. It is the one path where someone with enough entrepreneurial spirit can actually push immediately towards higher-level positions such as CEO or President, or eventual business ownership and success if the desire is there.

Through apprenticeship programs like ours at ABC San Diego, opportunity is here and waiting for thousands of young Americans. The shortage of qualified construction craft professionals grows more acute every day, estimated to reach 1.6 million people by 2022.

Small business is the backbone of the American economy, and growth of the economy needs more employment in construction, and, further, needs more continued generation of small business.

Discussion and awareness cost us nothing. Educators should make students and their families aware that there are alternate education paths, and they include apprenticeships.

According to a Department of Labor study, workers who finish apprenticeships earn an average of $240,000 more in wages over a lifetime than job seekers with similar work experience. In fact, 87 percent of apprentices are employed after completing their programs, with an average starting wage above $50,000.

Apprenticeship supporters are starting to call their programs “the other four-year degree,” and it would be a welcome change if the concept behind this label sticks with high school counselors, school board members, teachers, and parents.

I cannot overstate the importance of promoting the positive aspects of a career in the skilled trades, and the need to overcome long-held stereotypes that a university education is the only route to financial, personal and social success. I’ll be cheering Dr. Caplan and his message on all the way.

Walter Fritz is President and CEO of Nuera Contracting, and chairman of the Associated Builders and Contractors San Diego board of directors. For more information visit

ABCSD  I  13825 Kirkham Way Poway, CA 92064  I  Tel: 858.513.4700  I  Fax: 858.513.2373  I  I

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