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Motohisa Kaneko (Courtesy of Mr. Kaneko)

As part of our coverage of international education, reporter Blaine Harden traveled to Japan recently to learn more about a five-year program that educates a small number of students at 57 high-skill, hands-on national colleges of technology, known as Kosen. Kosen schools are helping to close a “skills gap”–which the United States faces as well–where graduates of college lack the hands-on competence required for many jobs that pay middle-class wages.

Harden quotes Motohisa Kaneko, director of research at Japan’s Center for National University Finance and Management, who has studied the Kosen model. We spoke with Kaneko further about what lessons the United States might be able to learn from Japan and the Kosen model.

Q: How has the Kosen system helped Japanese companies grow?

I think in many ways it has provided a pool of … engineers to small and medium industries. Especially in the 1960s, when Japanese industries were growing, I think many college graduates were recruited by very large manufacturing companies. Middle-scale manufacturing companies needed to have some engineers and Kosens were great at contributing in that sense. Also in the 1960s, participation rates in higher education were very low, especially for those living in rural areas with low income. Kosen provided a very good opportunity and their graduates were recruited by many manufacturing companies, so it worked in that sense.

How are Kosen graduates helping Japan Inc.’s efforts to build factories outside of Japan?

I think that they need engineers who are really functional on the floors of the factory, and those people are instrumental in building factories overseas.

Lessons From Abroad

This story is part of The Hechinger Report’s ongoing series on what the U.S. can learn from higher education in other countries.

Read the rest of the series and keep up on ongoing news on our blog.

What lessons could the United States take from Japan and particularly from something like Kosen?

I’m not really sure if the United States could take that model. In the U.S. before the war and in the 1950s and 60s, there were some very good technical high schools. But they became rather unpopular when registration in colleges and universities became much more popular. The high-school graduates started going to college, but the colleges were mainly four-year programs, not really many two-year programs for engineering industries. So the U.S. did not really have something between a high-school degree and a college degree. There could be some training schools for high-school graduates in a community college, but I’m not really sure if it can be popular among high-school graduates in the U.S.

Why is that, Mr. Kaneko?

I think college education is taken as a kind of standard. Also, in a way, community colleges in the U.S. serve similar purposes. But professional education programs in community colleges are not really organized. They teach professional courses, but they’re not really systematic education, especially in engineering areas. So I’m not really sure if it can become very useful in the U.S. Also, one thing you have to remember is that Kosen are very expensive. The teacher-to-student ratio is one to 10. That’s very low–much lower than American colleges. Also, almost all Kosens are national institutions. The per-student cost is very high.

Is the tuition mostly covered by the government?

Yes. The tuition is very low. So in a way, it’s a very good educational opportunity for students who are relatively talented and still from low-income areas. But I don’t think the Japanese government is considering expanding this sector anymore. It’s a very small and expensive sector.

Kosen is such a small slice of the education picture in Japan–roughly 50,000 students per year in a country that educates 2.5 million.

Yes, it’s slightly less than one percent of the young-age cohort, like 18 year-olds.

Students at Tokyo National College of Technology test their handmade diodes in a laboratory. (Photo by Blaine Harden)

Why is it so small? Is it lack of demand? Or is it too expensive? Is it something that can be taken to scale and grown?

Obviously the cost is very high. It should be the national government if it were to be expanded, but I don’t think the national government has enough resources or motivation to increase the number. Also, for the demand side, I’m not really sure that if they expand the intake too much, they can keep up the level of the academic qualifications of the entrants. Because at the present level of intake, they just take populations that are of very high intelligence but that have some limitations to go to a four-year college. That kind of population may be exhausted if they were to expand it.

Meaning, there wouldn’t be jobs on the other end? Meaning, if Kosen started graduating half a million students a year, there wouldn’t be enough demand for them?

Well, Kosen graduates are very popular because they have the training, very practical-minded training. But, on the other hand, partly because their ability is very high, under the present conditions it is very popular, but if the government wanted to expand Kosen much more, then I think the academic level of the entrants would go down fairly rapidly. And it’s questionable that many corporations would take the graduates as they do right now.

I understand. So if you widen the pool, you lower the talent?

Yes, that’s what I want to say. This pool is relatively small.

Japan and the U.S. are similar but also different in many ways, such as population and the diversity of that population. Considering that, is the Kosen model something you think could work in the U.S.?

Well, the higher-education system in the U.S. does not really have short-cycle, very systematic programs in engineering because much of the engineering education is taken up by four-year universities and colleges. And education in community colleges is not really geared to manufacturing jobs. … It would be a possibility for the U.S. to develop some short-cycle schools for engineers. But that is under the assumption that many high-school graduates would be interested in such a kind of short-cycle engineering education, which can be quite demanding.

Do you think there is a different model that might work in the United States?

Well, that’s possible, yes.

What might that be?

One thing is that in the United States, it’s the state government rather than the federal government in education. If the state government has significant determination to train high-school graduates in a short-cycle education at a relatively large scale by establishing very large revenue or a good school with a good financial basis, that could be possible. But I’m not really sure if that model can work in the present situation in the U.S.

Career and technical education is something that is talked about in America but often overlooked. Do you think America is doing a disservice by not focusing more on these kinds of programs?

My argument is that it cannot be too big a sector, but I think there is a significant sector in which this kind of good technical education can be useful. In the United States, there have been very good technical high schools before in the 1950s and 60s. … At the same time, many proprietary technical schools don’t really have enough resources [to offer] a good technical education. If the state or city can invest a significant amount of resources in technical education, that model can be workable to an extent. There are some demands. It is obvious, but it really depends on the policy decision to supply enough resources.

Do you think the U.S. should make it understandable to a younger population that college isn’t for everyone and that a technical education has value?

Yes, I think that provides a good alternative. Although the size [of those interested] may not be too great, it could be a viable alternative. The existence of this kind of alternative can be greatly influential in many ways, and not only for the people who actually enter those schools.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Nick Pandolfo writes for The Hechinger Report. A native of New York City, he majored in education at Eugene Lang College and later taught ESL for four years in New York, China and South Korea. Before entering...

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