The College Admissions Scandal and the Dignity of Work

By Tony Berry

Last month, an investigation by the FBI uncovered one of the largest college admissions scandals in recent history, and it implicated celebrity figures like Lori Laughlin along with institutions like Yale University and the University of Southern California. Rightfully so, public outrage (and a plethora of late-night talk show banter) at the inherent injustice of wealthy parents buying and bribing their children into college followed soon thereafter. It sparked a national conversation about the true nature of what passes for a meritocratic educational system, but in reality, favors those with means; whether that be through expensive tutoring, summer enrichment programs, or cultural biases on standardized tests and college entrance exams. These are all poignant issues that should be addressed and rectified, but there is a larger, underlying problem that this recent scandal has brought to light that may not be as obvious: the pressure put on students of all backgrounds to go to college, even if they may be better suited for a vocational career or trade that does not require a higher education degree.

Too many students go to college simply because they are expected to, even if they show aptitude for technical or entrepreneurial endeavors. This was the case for Lori Laughlin’s daughter, who has become one of the main faces of the admissions scandal. In a recent article in City Journal, Oren Cass elaborates on how vocational and apprenticeship-based programs would benefit a large majority of students whose best option might not be college, but are very capable of having meaningful career prospects. He argues that the need for investment in these types of programs is glaringly obvious given the data. Despite the drastic increase of college enrollees during the past three decades, “the share of 25-year-olds with a bachelor’s in 2015 was lower than in 1995, and roughly unchanged from 1975.” Cass goes on to mention that for “every 100 American students who begin the ninth grade, 18 will fail to graduate high school on time, 25 will earn a diploma but not enroll in college, and 29 will enroll in college but fail to complete a degree.”

Public personalities like television host Mike Rowe have long been advocates of rethinking our nation’s emphasis on higher education as the best option for young people in contrast to vocational training and apprenticeships. Currently, many students feel pressured to attend a prestigious college in order to strengthen career prospects after graduation, without being made fully aware of the breadth of their options. The earnings-potential of someone going into a vocational or technical career can be just as advantageous as going into accounting or other administrative roles.

While there is a strong economic and public policy case for increasing vocational training and apprenticeships, there is an even stronger moral case for it. The value and dignity of work of all kinds is stressed throughout the tradition of the Abrahamic faiths. During the last year of his life, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. strongly advocated for economic justice and the dignity of vocational labor. Dr. King participated in a strike rallying around Memphis sanitation workers after they were subjected to harsh working conditions and low pay. In one of his final speeches he proclaimed, “[The workers] are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.”

All work has dignity, but our human dignity does not come from our work. In a recent tweet, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) rebuked those who continually criticize her for her non-traditional route to Capitol Hill. She tweeted, “I find it revealing when people mock where I came from, & say they’re going to ‘send me back to waitressing,’ as if that is bad or shameful. It’s as though they think being a member of Congress makes you intrinsically ‘better’ than a waitress. But our job is to serve, not rule.” As a society, we must dismantle the notion that our value and worth come from our title of employment; the plumber and mechanic have the same human dignity and are worthy of the same respect as the hedge fund manager and corporate lawyer. The Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Economic Justice emphasizes: “Human beings are created in the image of God with many talents and capabilities that, with maturation and development, make possible the exercise of a wide range of responsibilities.” The hierarchy of work caused by our human condition does not need to be so. All work is seen as valuable and dignified in the eyes of God.

All work has dignity, but our human dignity does not come from our work

Government has a responsibility to promote policies and practices that contribute to human flourishing. At the local, state, and federal level, some public officials have begun working to find solutions to the underinvestment in vocational and apprenticeship training. More and more jobs will require a combination of hands-on work and technical skills like programming that require specialized training, and it’s important that policymakers recognize this. Investing in vocational training and apprenticeship programs has the upside of unleashing untapped economic growth and increasing the labor force participation, but more importantly, allowing more young people to maximize their God-given potential.

At the same time, we should recognize that putting too much emphasis on vocational training and apprenticeship programs may discourage historically-underserved groups and people of color from applying to college, or even taking the necessary preparatory classes in high school. This is a scenario that should be taken seriously, as many of those students can be intimidated by the hurdles they must overcome to attend a university. However, having the option of vocational training and receiving a quality liberal arts education do not have to be mutually exclusive.

As an example, we can look to Germany, which offers one of the best models in vocational education and training systems. Almost a third of Germany’s students pursue vocational training after secondary school where they are able to learn technical skills for their trades, the history and theory behind them, and foreign languages that help them become globally competitive. There are many small-scale examples of how this could work in the U.S on a broad scale.

One example is found in New York City, where Google launched a local learning center in lower Manhattan that provides free workshops and classes to students and adults alike. Classes offered include coding and programming, presentation skills, and productivity training with a focus on maximizing use of Google Suite software. Additionally, several online platforms like Codecademy offer free, curated online training along with inexpensive membership features. Through this medium, users can practice using coding and programming software like Python and Ruby. Large firms like Google and small businesses and start-ups like Codecademy should continue to work with local municipalities in expanding these opportunities. This will help them and other employers meet their growing demand for workers by equipping more people with the skills demanded in the labor market.

While government and private businesses are important actors in creating and supporting vocational and technical opportunities, other institutions in civil society - including nonprofit organizations and churches - can also aide students. Working parallel of (and sometimes in partnership with) the efforts of the government, innovative nonprofit organizations are addressing the need for vocational and technical training. To help improve outcomes for students interested in technical and vocational jobs, churches and local citizens can offer opportunities for mentorship by connecting students with professionals who are experienced in the student’s field of interest. Doing so would help students professionally navigate the workforce, provide them with resources, and help them to acquire the necessary skill set for their career path.

A larger commitment from government and other sectors of society including nonprofits, faith-based institutions, and civic organizations to provide vocational and technical training is an investment in our future that will allow more young people, and society as a whole, to thrive. Strengthening America’s vocational education and apprenticeship programs is a task that is achievable, and most importantly, will help to affirm the dignity of all work.

Tony Berry is a recent University of Alabama economics graduate and former AmeriCorps service member. He currently lives and works in New York City.