With the media understandably focused on Marco Rubio’s devastating exchange with Jeb Bush over his Senate attendance record, the Florida Senator’s policy ideas aren’t getting that much play in the post-debate press. But one of his debate comments on education policy deserves to be generating more conversation (and likely will, if Rubio can consolidate his status as the party’s likely nominee):
We need to get back to training people in this country to do the jobs of the 21st century. Why, for the life of me, I do not understand why did we stop doing vocational education in America, people that can work with their hands; people you can train to do this work while they’re still in high school so they can graduate ready to go work. But the best way to close this gap is to modernize higher education so Americans have the skills for those jobs.
With college debt rising to unsustainable levels, and with a growing number of graduates of expensive colleges unable to find well-paying jobs, it’s critical that policymakers start experimenting with new ways to equip students with the skills and knowledge they need at a lower cost. An increased focus on vocational education should clearly be part of the mix—the four year-long liberal arts education isn’t for everyone, and data show that countries whose education systems emphasize practicable skills have lower unemployment rates.
That said, the United States probably can’t adopt a full-fledged German-style apprenticeship program. America has a high degree of labor mobility, and our educational system should give students a breadth of skills so that they have the flexibility to move from one company to another. And for all the failings of unaffordable four-year universities with bloated bureaucracies, it’s important that we don’t give up on liberal arts programs, which can go a long way toward fostering critical thinking and creativity in students with specific goals and aptitudes.
Rubio isn’t the only politician emphasizing vocational education; Hillary Clinton also said last year that the country should “get back to really respecting vocational and technical work.” It’s encouraging to see leading politicians start to rethink a failing educational system. Let’s hope that some of this rhetoric can be translated into intelligent policy changes that maximize students’ leeway to choose the path that is right for them.