Few Swiss kids go to col­lege, but they find good ca­reers. Could it work here?

Lodi News-Sentinel - - OPINION - KARIN KLEIN Karin Klein is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who has cov­ered ed­u­ca­tion, sci­ence and food pol­icy. She wrote this for the Sacra­mento Bee.

In Switzer­land, full-time ed­u­ca­tion is manda­tory only through ninth grade, when stu­dents are gen­er­ally 15 years old. Few con­tinue full-time school­ing past that point. But be­fore jump­ing to any con­clu­sions about what sounds like an un­e­d­u­cated na­tion, con­sider this:

The vast ma­jor­ity of those stu­dents work at part-time ap­pren­tice­ship jobs in gen­er­ally well-paid fields. Many of those jobs would re­quire a col­lege de­gree here. They’re paid dur­ing their ap­pren­tice­ship, and con­tinue to at­tend school part time. By the time they’re done with the pro­gram, at age 18 or 19, they have a ca­reer, usu­ally with the com­pany where they trained.

I’ve been in email con­tact lately with sev­eral moth­ers in Switzer­land about its ap­pren­tice­ship sys­tem. I’ve heard about the girl who went into ho­tel man­age­ment — a ca­reer that would re­quire a col­lege de­gree in the United States, if not a grad­u­ate de­gree as well. Her ed­u­ca­tion added up to five years — four in part-time train­ing plus part-time school­ing and an ex­tra year of train­ing. I learned about the hus­band who was a bank ex­ec­u­tive with­out a col­lege de­gree for 15 years, and only then went to univer­sity be­cause he feared his cre­den­tials wouldn’t be taken se­ri­ously in the United States.

Here, we force kids into re­quired col­lege-prep courses, press teach­ers to pass them on to­ward grad­u­a­tion even when they haven’t mas­tered the ma­te­rial, then push col­leges to ac­cept and grad­u­ate more of them, while Cal­i­for­nia’s pub­lic col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties are bulging at the seams. We jus­ti­fi­ably worry how stu­dents will pay for col­lege and where we’ll find the money to ed­u­cate more and more of them for what we think is a re­quire­ment for 21st-cen­tury jobs. Less than two-thirds of U.S. stu­dents at fouryear col­leges com­plete their ed­u­ca­tions within six years. It’s a waste of their time and every­one’s money.

If there’s one thing Don­ald Trump has been right about when it comes to ed­u­ca­tion, it is that we have woe­fully un­der­val­ued vo­ca­tional ed­u­ca­tion and the skilled work­ers it pro­duces. This doesn’t mean re­vert­ing to old-fash­ioned shop classes in fields that are rapidly be­ing taken over by ro­bot­ics and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. It means real train­ing that pro­duces peo­ple who can do ev­ery­thing a col­lege grad or some­one with an as­so­ciate’s de­gree could do, and then some. In Switzer­land, com­pa­nies are ea­ger part­ners; they find the young ap­pren­tices well worth the train­ing and small salaries they re­ceive as com­pen­sa­tion.

We could in­ter­est more stu­dents in ed­u­ca­tion, start them on more promis­ing fu­tures and cre­ate a work­force able to take on the jobs of the fu­ture by con­sid­er­ing the Swiss model.

In­stead, we use a col­lege de­gree as a proxy for real abil­ity – and no won­der, with so many high school stu­dents grad­u­at­ing with­out the read­ing, writ­ing and other skills needed to for real ca­reers. I think of a woman I know from Ro­seville who was an adept of­fice man­ager for many years. She moved to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, where she couldn’t get a sim­i­lar job de­spite glow­ing rec­om­men­da­tions. A col­lege de­gree had be­come a pre­req­ui­site for the job, an egre­gious case of ed­u­ca­tion in­fla­tion.

The Swiss sys­tem has its draw­backs. Kids are pressed to make ca­reer de­ci­sions early on in their lives. Full-time aca­demic high school is open only to those who can pass rig­or­ous en­trance ex­am­i­na­tions, which makes it tough on kids who might be late bloomers. Only about 25 to 30 per­cent take on this chal­lenge, and the schools are highly rig­or­ous com­pared with ours. Stu­dents who grad­u­ate have the equiv­a­lent of a year to two of col­lege.

But there’s also plenty of built-in flex­i­bil­ity. Teenagers can change their ap­pren­tice­ships dur­ing or after them. There’s a path­way for them to try for a univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion with a “pas­sarelle” (or bridge) year that catches them up on the courses they need. Su­sanne Gutzwiller wrote to me about her daugh­ter Cassie who ap­pren­ticed to be­come a doc­tor’s as­sis­tant, and now is con­sid­er­ing go­ing to univer­sity to be­come a nurse. By the time stu­dents reach this point, they have greater ma­tu­rity and more clar­ity about their goals, as well as courses and ex­pe­ri­ence in their cho­sen field; they’re much more likely to com­plete their col­lege stud­ies suc­cess­fully.

Jen­nifer Weiss, who moved from the United States to Switzer­land, where she is rais­ing two daugh­ters, has seen both sys­tems up close and def­i­nitely prefers the se­cond one.

“Frankly, hav­ing lived with the U.S. sys­tem, and hav­ing read about the enor­mous amounts of debt, cou­pled of­ten with a less than in­spir­ing job mar­ket for many stu­dents who grad­u­ate from U.S. col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, I strongly be­lieve that it’s time to re­ex­am­ine the en­tire Amer­i­can sys­tem of ed­u­ca­tion and job place­ment,” Weiss wrote to me. “If one looks back in US his­tory, I am sure that past gen­er­a­tions were largely ed­u­cated by on-the-job train­ing, ap­pren­tice­ships, men­tor­ing, and when nec­es­sary, pro­fes­sional school­ing. When did it be­come a ‘ne­ces­sity’ to have a col­lege de­gree to be el­i­gi­ble for most jobs?”

There are com­pli­ca­tions in try­ing to trans­late the Swiss sys­tem to the U.S. This is a more racially di­verse na­tion with an un­ac­cept­able his­tory of de­priv­ing black and Latino stu­dents of col­legeprep courses and ush­er­ing them to­ward vo­ca­tional ed­u­ca­tion no mat­ter how great their tal­ents might be. It would take some stiff rules and on­go­ing over­sight to pre­vent an ap­pren­tice­ship pro­gram from be­com­ing an ex­cuse to do that all over again.

At the same time, we haven’t been do­ing dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents any fa­vors with in­ad­e­quate pub­lic-school ed­u­ca­tion and grad­u­a­tion to col­leges where they lose faith, feel frus­trated and end up drop­ping out, with no de­grees or skills to bring to the work­place. Per­haps if we stopped think­ing of col­lege ed­u­ca­tion as a cure-all for Amer­i­can stu­dents, they’d ac­tu­ally be much bet­ter ed­u­cated.

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