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Steve Blow, a columnist for The Dallas Morning News, wrote last month that the fixation on college-prep curriculums in high schools is what's leading kids to drop out. "Rather than face reality and steer students in directions suited to their talents," he wrote, "schools would rather live with the pleasant fiction that every child can be college material."
It seems every day a stronger case can be made against the four-year college degree.
According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, from 1996 to 2006, the cost to students for tuition and fees needed to obtain an undergraduate degree at a public university rose 257 percent.
Today, the average total sticker price in Texas for public four-year universities is $17,000 a year, and $26,000 a year at private ones. Tuition and fees at public universities have risen 40 percent since 2003, when the Legislature let schools set the rates to help cover budget shortfalls.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, two-thirds of four-year college graduates leave with a substantial student loan. The average amount is about $20,000. In the last decade, the percentage of undergraduates borrowing at least $25,000 more than tripled from 7 to 26 percent.
Prohibitive tuition and fees may be costing Texas 47,000 undergraduate degrees a year, according to a report cited last February in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Now consider the effects of today's economic woes.
Federal and state college loan programs are reeling from the credit crunch caused by the subprime mortgage crisis. According to the College Board, private loans accounted for 24 percent of all education loans in 2006-2007, up from six percent a decade earlier. Unlike federal loans, whose interest rates are capped by law, private loans typically include variable interest rates tied to credit scores.
Several lenders have halted or cut back their student-loan programs, saying they can't raise money in the securities markets due to wary investors. With fewer companies offering college loans, students may be forced to take out loans with rates that can reach 20 percent, just like with credit cards.
"When a student signs the paper for these loans, they are basically signing an indenture," Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, told The New York Times last summer. "We are indebting these kids for life."
Meanwhile, only about one-third of jobs require a college degree, according to federal labor statistics. And many industries, such as engineering, are in desperate need of skilled technical workers as baby boomers set to retire.
According to the Virginia-based Association for Career and Technical Education, state and federal workforce data show 80 percent of current and emerging occupations require two-year technical degrees and/or two years of on-the-job training, while just 20 percent require baccalaureate degrees.
Garcia says school districts need to do a better job of defining terms.
"College doesn't just mean four-year degree," she says. "It could be advanced training, a certificate or associate's degree. There's a lot of room for interpretation."
"The trend in education is to tell everybody they need to go to college," she says. "It scares me. If all kids go to college, we're all in trouble. We'd have a lot of overqualified people in the workforce. And, anyway, you can't do much with a lot of four-year degrees."
According to Wrobleski, school districts too often lose focus of their mission:
"Why do we go to school? To get a job. Educators are bad about saying that."
Carl Wunsche Sr. High in Spring ISD has set a new standard for career and technical education in the Houston area, and possibly the entire state.
"That's the Rolls-Royce," says Wrobleski. "They charge $50 a day just to tour the facility. In education, that's unheard of."
The gleaming $40-million, 270,000-square-foot campus, opened in August 2006, is organized around a medical tower, a technology tower and a professional tower, which is divided into academies for legal studies, business and finance, and child studies and teacher preparation. Each tower serves as a kind of mini-college.
The glass and stone building, which last year won an international prize for educational architecture, features Wi-Fi technology throughout, and all students are given free laptops. Core classes for math, science, English and social studies overlook state-of-the-art laboratories where students spend two-hour blocks every day getting hands-on training in anything from biotechnology to hotel management, software engineering and criminal investigations.
The school offers students dozens of career paths and opportunities to gain industry certifications, including as veterinary assistants, Microsoft Office specialists and pharmacy technicians. The course book rivals that of any community college, and includes information on education levels required for each career as well as the average annual salary it yields and an employment outlook, based on state and federal labor statistics.
There's a working childcare center, veterinary clinic, culinary kitchen and automotive garage as comprehensive as any dealership's. There are computer labs for graphic design, a mock courtroom and a television studio that ranks among the largest in the Houston area, according to Russ Armstrong, who worked in film production for ten years in New York City and now serves as the school's media technology instructor.