Higher Education

Candidate’s comment reopens controversy over whether college is worth the cost

Contention brings scrutiny to who does better in life — tradespeople or degree-holders

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks to supporters at a campaign rally, Tuesday, March 1, 2016, in Miami.

For a guy with only a high school diploma, Andrew Cardin, 23, thinks he’s doing pretty well for himself.

Cardin, who learned welding at a vocational high school near his home in Sutton, Massachusetts, just started a job as a welder earning $29 an hour, or $55,680 a year. He plans to eventually push for a raise to at least $37 an hour, or $71,040 a year.

That makes him a poster boy for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s assertion at a debate among the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination that “welders make more money than philosophers.”

In fact, most welders make less than Cardin — $37,420 a year as a median salary, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to $63,630 for philosophy professors.

But Rubio’s comment has reopened the question, for at least some Americans, about whether it’s worth going deep into debt to pay for college at a time when the average cost of tuition, fees and room and board at a private four-year university is closing in on the median American household income.

The bottom line is that many people without degrees can make as much as people with them. Those who graduate from colleges and universities have lower rates of unemployment, however. And higher education officials argue that they’re better equipped for life and work.

This assumes that college teaches them the right things, of course, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

“Colleges and universities are meant to give people the education that allows them to live fully in their time, to develop their abilities and be self-aware,” Carnevale said. “But in a market economy you have to get paid to live well. Higher education has to prepare students fully for work. Otherwise, they’ll be living under a bridge.”

Even after spending all that money on their educations, about 44 percent of college graduates work in jobs that don’t require a degree, according to the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.



Meanwhile, Carnevale said, it’s true that “you don’t have to get a [bachelor’s degree] to earn as much as someone with one.”

While they may make less than philosophy professors, Carnevale said, journeyman welders earn about the same as people with bachelor’s degrees. In many other skilled trades, too — heating and ventilation, electronics, computer and information services, for instance — certificate programs take only about a year to complete and earn graduates more than typical college and university graduates who spend four years or more getting those degrees.

The market for welders is particularly strong, said Cindy Weihl, spokesperson for the American Welding Society — precisely because, about 20 years ago, counselors and parents started pushing kids to go to college, rather than into blue-collar fields.

“Now we’re facing a skills gap, a shortage of more than 200,000 welders,” Weihl said. And that leads to salaries like the one Cardin commands.

During the recession, Wiehl said, the society even started seeing bankers and others who worked in financial services losing their jobs and enrolling in programs to become welders.

Those who only finished technical high schools, like Cardin, may actually already have enough training to land a good job, she said. For others, a 36-week pipe-welding program at top-rated Hobart Institute of Welding Technology in Troy, Ohio costs $15,440, less than a semester at some four-year colleges.

The job placement rate for students who complete the program at Hobart and receive industry certifications is 93 percent and graduating combination welders, who are qualified to complete a number of assignments, earn starting salaries of $36,480 a year, according to the salary tracking website payscale.com.

A bachelor’s degree in philosophy, by comparison, can cost more than $175,000 on a private, nonprofit residential campus, at present rates. Becoming a professor of philosophy requires a doctorate and about another eight years of school.

The Republican debate was not the first time Rubio has promoted skilled labor as a better shot at the good life than higher education. He has spoken in stump speeches about how he racked up $100,000 in student loan debt himself (he has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a graduate degree in law), and argued that colleges and universities should be required to inform students of not only the actual full cost of their educations, but their job prospects.

Rubio cosponsored a bill in 2012 that would require this information to be disclosed, and while the bill did not pass, it was reintroduced last year.

Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said those job prospects for college graduates are better than people like Rubio suggest — and, welder shortages notwithstanding, better than for workers who don’t go to college.

Schneider conceded there’s a public perception that pursuing a bachelor’s degree in a humanities discipline such as philosophy is tantamount to inviting unemployment. The reality is that only a very small percentage of graduates with such degrees in any subject don’t get jobs. The unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree holders is 3.5 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and they have median weekly earnings of $1,137. For those with only a high school diploma, the unemployment rate is 6 percent, and median weekly earnings just $678.

B.A. holders are also far better ready for work, said Schneider, thanks to well-rounded educations that teach such things as problem-solving, writing and communicating.

“Rubio basically seems to be saying technical skills are enough, that we don’t need American citizens to understand the larger context of the world they’re navigating,” Schneider said. “What he is saying is dangerous for America and would be disastrous for anyone who follows his apparent model for the future.”

Frank Gulluni agreed that workers need a broad education beyond job training. He’s director of the Manufacturing Technology Center at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where welding students earn associate’s degrees.

Gulluni says two recent graduates of the welding program are making about $35 an hour in the aerospace industry. But it’s not all about the money.

Years ago, he said, Gulluni asked the president of aircraft manufacturer Pratt & Whitney why the company was paying for some of its machinists and other skilled workers to earn bachelor’s degrees in areas including finance, marketing and education.

“I said, ‘What are you thinking?’” Gulluni recalled. “They should all be in engineering.”

“Who cares what they take?” the president responded. “If they want to become doctors, let them. We’ll pay for it and we’ll give them a bonus.”

It was a turning point for Gulluni. “Today in the workplace it’s about communication, being able to relate to people, accepting people as they are,” he said. “That’s education, that’s philosophy, psychology, sociology, literature. A college education will grow a welding student to become a better employee, a better welder, a better human being.”

That’s how Meira Levinson, a professor of political philosophy at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, looked at her education, too. Levinson majored in philosophy as an undergrad at Yale because she was interested in the questions posed in her studies: What are her obligations in the world? What are her responsibilities to others?

When she was deciding on a job, Levinson said, she weighed personal happiness against an obligation to serve others. After earning a B.A. in philosophy and a Ph.D. in politics, she began work as a middle-school teacher and did that for eight years.

“All kids need an education that will enable them to participate as full citizens in society and to fulfill goals and interests beyond the workplace,” said Levinson. “None of us is defined solely by our jobs. That’s as true for kids pursuing a trade as it is for those pursuing college educations.”

As for Cardin, he eventually wants to go to college because he said he “doesn’t want to be 50 and still welding.” He’s considering a degree in welding engineering because he’d like to take a look at his craft from a different angle, to find out why things are welded a certain way, and why certain processes are used.

But he also knows that some people get into debt when they go to college, and he’s determined that won’t happen to him. He considers welding engineering to be a safe bet.

“If I have to take out a loan, it will pay itself back in the first year,” said Cardin. “You can act like that college loan wasn’t even part of your history. Once you have that engineering degree you’re naming your price, going wherever you want to go.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

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