After Student-Debt Relief, America Must Move Beyond 'College for All' | Opinion

President Joe Biden is hardly a model of rhetorical clarity. But two weeks ago, after canceling over half a trillion dollars in student debt with the stroke of a pen, he sent a message that could not have been clearer. "Education is a ticket to a better life," he declared, but "12 years of universal education is not enough." Every young American should go to college, and Uncle Sam (or Uncle Joe) should pick up the tab.

However novel its legal reasoning, Biden's policy finds its roots in a half century of "College-for-All" education policy in the United States. Even before Biden's boondoggle, the federal government was spending up to $200 billion in annual higher-education subsidies—up from $20 billion three decades ago and second only to Luxembourg on a per-student basis.

That spending might be justified if the system worked, but even by its own standards, College-for-All has been a disaster. Less than a fifth of high school students transition smoothly from high school to college to a career. Most young Americans, in other words, find themselves stuck either without a degree or without a job that requires one.

Of course, mounting student debt exacerbates these problems. But the fundamental issue with higher education isn't the price tag. It's the unmerited pedestal on which we place the college degree, and the policies that push every student to pursue it. Whatever temporary financial relief Biden's forgiveness may offer, its ramifications for the American education system will be long-lasting. Canceling student debt merely doubles down on a broken system while ignoring the vast majority of Americans left behind by it.

The injustice of Biden's policy isn't lost on workers without degrees. As Pennsylvania iron workers complained to The New York Post, "It's not going to affect the people that are here, the people that are actually out doing all the work." That these workers' taxes will fund the relief adds only insult to injury.

Like the iron workers, most Americans recognize that college is not, in fact, for all. The American Compass Failing on Purpose Survey polled Americans' attitudes about the American education system and models of reform. Nearly two-thirds of parents with school-age or young-adult children acknowledge that only "some students have the academic ability to succeed in college, and others do not."

Student loan protest
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 27: Student loan debt holders take part in a demonstration outside of the white house staff entrance to demand that President Biden cancel student loan debt in August on July 27, 2022 at the Executive Offices in Washington, DC. Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Rather than abandon those "other" students, Americans want to build them viable alternatives to college. The vast majority of parents (86 percent) support a "tracking" approach to high school that offers students different pathways based on their aptitudes and interests. After high school, most want career-focused training, not subsidized bachelor's degrees. When asked to choose between a full-tuition college scholarship and a three-year apprenticeship that led to a well-paying job, most parents (57 percent) preferred the apprenticeship for their own children. Only the highest-earning, most educated parents choose free college.

These aren't mere policy preferences; they reflect a deeper set of values about the purpose of education and the meaning of the American Dream. More than two-in-three Americans—both parents and recent graduates—believe that maximizing academic success for college admission is less important than preparing students with skills and values to build a decent life. By similar margins Americans, especially in the lower and working class, say they prefer an academic pathway that offers good career options close to home to one that offers the best possible career options but is far from home.

The non-college infrastructure available today falls far short of Americans' stated ideals. To this day, the United States is the only developed country without a distinct non-college vocational education track. The existing federal apprenticeship program suffers from significant structural flaws that make it unattractive to employers. Examples from abroad prove that viable, non-college pathways are possible. But actually building them will require not only a shift in policy priorities, but significant investment, reform, and experimentation.

Some lawmakers are already taking the necessary steps. Just this week, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced the American Workforce Act to support the development of employer-led, on-the-job education opportunities. His proposal would create a voucher for Americans without a college degree to fund full-time, paid positions that combine work experience with skills training. The program would keep employer requirements flexible to encourage experimentation, and would create new financial incentives to hire trainees after their program concludes.

In addition to expanding educational options, the program would further expose the wastefulness of federal higher-education subsidies. For just $9,000, the proposed voucher would cover the necessary costs of training for up to six months, at less than half of what the public spends on the typical college student. To put that in perspective, the money President Biden spent canceling student debt could create more than 50 million on-the-job training and employment opportunities. But rather than take more from the paychecks of American workers, Senator Cotton proposes to fund the initial costs of the program with a tax on the endowments of America's wealthiest private universities.

The American people deserve an education system that serves their needs rather than the desires of a select few. Replacing the college conveyor belt with a variety of pathways may take many years of effort. But taxing Harvard to train hard-working Americans for well-paying jobs is a good place to start.

Wells King is the research director at American Compass.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.