For years now, U.S. educators have invested massive amounts of talent and money on two goals: preventing students from dropping out of high school and increasing the percentage of high school graduates who go on to college.
We do everything possible to encourage college attendance. In the 2011-12 academic year, for example, one program alone—the federal Pell Grant program, intended to help low- and moderate-income students finance college—cost taxpayers $34.5 billion, about half the entire U.S. Department of Education budget.
Yet many Pell Grant recipients never graduate. They flounder; they drop out; they become statistics.
How can we prevent such waste?
A new report from the College Board, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, offers a variety of useful ideas, such as larger grants for students who take heavier college course loads. Tougher schedules show that students are serious about graduating.
That’s one good approach. But let me suggest another, which Germany has pioneered.
Our friends in Germany know—as we should—that some students are bored by traditional studies; some don’t have the aptitude for college; some would rather work with their hands; and some are unhappy at home and just need to get away. They realize that everyone won’t benefit from college, but they can still be successful and contribute to society.
Americans often see such students as victims. Germans see these students as potential assets who might one day shine if they’re matched with the right vocation. And it has a system in place—a partnership of employers and unions with government—to do the matching and provide the necessary training.
As the New York Times Magazine recently noted, Germany’s vocational education program doesn’t focus entirely on factory work. Consider the story of the noted chef Claus-Peter Lumpp.
“Lumpp’s culinary ascent began with the simple urge to drop out of high school around the time of his 16th birthday,” the Times’ Nicholas Kulish reported. “His widowed mother had remarried, and the family moved to another town. Everything felt off: the new school, the new people. His mother gave him permission to leave school, but only if he found an apprenticeship.” Lumpp found that apprenticeship in the kitchen of the Hotel Bareiss. Today, Lumpp’s Restaurant Bareiss has a three-star rating from the prestigious Michelin guide—and most of the chefs in his kitchen were mentored under the same system that brought his talents to the fore.
As a result of this system, few Germans find themselves unemployable. The youth unemployment rate, for example, was just 7.7 percent in February, well below that of the U.S. (16.2 percent officially, excluding those who have dropped out of the labor market) and the euro zone as a whole (23.9 percent). Overall unemployment in Germany was just 5.4 percent in February.
Administered by the Federal Institute for Vocational Training and Education, Germany’s vocational education program is a dual system: Students learn in the classroom, and they learn by doing. Typically, trainees attend vocational school one or two days per week, studying the theory and practice of their occupation as well as economics and social studies, foreign languages, and other general subjects. They also do a working apprenticeship in their chosen field. During this period, trainees receive about one-third of the salary of a trained skilled worker.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, a majority of German students (some 51.5 percent) choose this path.
America for too long has attempted a cookie-cutter approach to secondary education: Stay in school; go to college; and we’ll all be happy. To our continued consternation, it doesn’t always work.
If America wants to remain competitive, we have to keep our young people engaged. Germany has the right formula. U.S. business and political leaders should learn from the German approach and invest in creating and supporting a German-style vocational education system. Businesses will get the skilled workers they need, young people will see new career opportunities open up to them, our middle class will be strengthened, and our economy will benefit.