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Opinion: On the job training vs. college

I did not go to college because I wanted to.

I went first of all because it was expected of me. I had good grades in high school, and that meant, according to the prevailing custom, you were supposed to continue your studies, especially if you would be the first one in your family to attempt postsecondary education.

And I went second of all because I thought I had to. Journalism at the time had joined the ranks of professions enamored of credentialism, the excessive reliance on a 4-year or better degree to weed out the riffraff from among job applicants. Without that piece of paper, you might as well go stand in line at the warehouse recruiting office.

So I toughed it out and got that degree, which meant, among other things, giving three years of my life to the Army, using the GI Bill to finish at Ball State what I had started at Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne.

Then started my career and discovered, on the very first day, how useless my college degree was.

Everything we did in school was one thing at a time. One story, one research project, one paper, then you got your grade and moved on to the next task. On my first morning at the Wabash Plain Dealer, I was given four story assignments that were due by noon that day.

Welcome to the real world. I learned more in my first week on the job than I had in four years of college. All that degree had done was get my foot in the door. Much of what I learned was from the city editor, relic of a bygone era who had started life as a car salesman and sneaked in the newspaper back door while the degree hall monitor wasn’t looking.

I wonder if I would still feel the same pressure today and make the same choice. Journalism as I knew it is falling apart, and no one knows quite how the pieces will fit back together. Will our future Twitter scribes and YouTube news readers still be required to obtain that foot-in-the-door piece of paper?

Many other professions seem to be giving up the degree requirement.

According to career coach Ken Coleman, in 2017, 51 percent of job listings required at least a 4-year degree. However, by 2021, that number declined to 44 percent, a 7 percent drop. He said he can see the number dropping to 25 percent in the next five years.

“On-the-job training is replacing the college diploma,” Coleman told The College Fix. “To put it simply, the ‘knowledge’ that comes with a degree isn’t relevant to the job.”

I’m not recommending against going to college. That is an individual’s decision. But this is surely a good trend.

No, I don’t long for the days when all professionals, including doctors and lawyers, got their start by merely apprenticing with those already on the job. There needed to be a way to accumulate and disperse specialized knowledge.

But somewhere along the way, our institutions of higher learning seem to have lost track of their mission.

Their goal was not just to train students in a profession, but also give them a well-rounded education in the ways of the world. Graduates were supposed to be grounded not only in their careers but in life as well.

Colleges today specialize in training students for jobs they can’t get while piling mountains of debt on them and providing amusing classroom diversions like “Rock and Roll as Poetry,” “the Klingon Language” and “A Study of Walking.”

I blame me.

Or at least members of my generation.

Thanks partly to the GI Bill and especially to Vietnam-era college deferments, thousands of Baby Boomers who shouldn’t have gone to college did so anyway. Many of them lingered on to run the joints, transforming their shallow, hedonistic anti-establishment philosophy into institutional orthodoxy.

To other members of society, to paraphrase (to make it family friendly) a line in Animal House: “You screwed up. You trusted us.”

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Send comments to [email protected]

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