Photo: Edward A. Ornelas /San Antonio Express-News
Back in the mid-1980s, when I was in the seventh grade, I took an occupational investigation class. If I remember correctly, a fairly stout textbook listed nearly all the jobs/professions of the day.
Earning six figures as a pilot stuck in my memory.
At the time, however, I was drawn to the lawyers of “L.A. Law, ” and the doctors in “St. Elsewhere.” I wanted to be an obstetrician like Cliff Huxtable on “The Cosby Show.” I knew any of these paths could be lucrative, but delivering babies seemed pretty rewarding.
Then I saw a character in some movie utter something about going six figures into debt to attend medical school. I was out.
This came back to me when I saw a story on National Public Radio’s website recently that reported on a growing trend: Earnings in vocational trades are on the rise, while the returns on a college degree are “softening.”
There are organic and artificial market signals at the root of this, and I’m not alone in having experienced both.
My sister and I grew up lower middle class. Our mom married our dad after high school while he was enrolled in a two-year stint at Del Mar Tech in Corpus Christi (now Del Mar College). He took those skills into the Air Force before landing a welding job a few years later.
As Mom did some secretarial work and Dad moved to sales in the oil industry and school fundraising, it was expected that my sister and I would devote comparatively more time to college.
“If you don’t know what to major in, just get a business degree,” I remember him saying. Such a path was seen as the way to a comfortable life, and no doubt it still is.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate is half to three-quarters lower and median earnings are 50 percent to 250 percent higher the more educated you are.
Enter the artificial signal.
The Federal Family Education Loan program, part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society,” created a government backstop for banks that lent to college students. This gave way in 2010 to the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, or HCERA.
Private sector involvement ended in favor of total control by the Department of Education. HCERA also lowered the required monthly repayment and moved up the time at which the remaining balance could be forgiven.
In the interim, the Grad PLUS program of 2005 expanded the availability of government loans to graduate students, many of which fall under the same loosened repayment options.
Add it all up and the amount of federal student loans outstanding has more than doubled in the past 10 years alone — to $1.4 trillion.
To be sure, I used such loans to earn my undergraduate degree from UT-Dallas, and I might have to again for my daughters. However, I paid them off a few years later, back when moral hazard and perverse incentives were a bit clearer.
Before I took my first university class, though, I paid my way through two community colleges: Victoria College and Richland College in Dallas. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are myriad jobs that require only a year or two of training and/or education.
At the five Alamo Community Colleges here in San Antonio (full disclosure: I’m an adjunct instructor at one, Northwest Vista College), you could earn an associate degree in water resource sciences and pull down almost $50,000 per year. Nursing and dental assisting programs prep students to clear $70,000. One year of study can secure plumbing skills that could fetch almost $60,000. One of my daughters, having expressed an interest in volunteering at animal shelters, might like to know she could earn a veterinary tech degree and make $30,000 to $40,000.
Furthermore, companies such as mine reach out to schools like mine when looking to staff their IT departments.
In addition to a high graduation rate, one of the reasons my school was ranked No. 1 in Texas last year was affordability. For San Antonio residents, 60 hours of education and/or training can be had here for less than $6,000.
If kids today are anything like I was, more than a few are uncertain about the direction they want to go after high school. For much less cost, and quite likely no borrowing, they could learn a skill that could pay them handsomely before they’re even of legal drinking age. It could also be a big source of funding for continuing their education at the university level.
If borrowing is still necessary, it should take place wholly within the private sector.
When you juxtapose studies that compare the lowest earning quartile of college graduates to high school graduates, with earnings-per-major information compiled by the Department of Education, it’s not a stretch to conclude that this is another example of what happens when politicians meddle in the market: Taxpayers are left holding the bill. And if you were one of the borrowers, that’s two bills for you — three, if you count the tax hit on a forgiven balance.
Private investors and banks have an incentive to survey the occupational landscape to see which fields have, or could have, a growing demand for qualified labor and therefore will likely experience rising wages. That incentive is business survival. Wherever they see supply outstripping demand, they’re likely to shy away from investing therein. That would, in turn, be an incentive to a prospective student to perhaps consider another course of study if applying for assistance.
Add that type of scrutiny in educational financing to the appeal of higher wages from jobs that require just a year or two of training, and watch university tuition drop.
If only I’d realized back then how affordable and relatively brief pilot training was … Oh, well, maybe it is indeed never too late to be what you might have been.
Christopher E. Baecker manages fixed assets for Pioneer Energy Services and is an adjunct lecturer of economics at Northwest Vista College. He can be reached at facebook.com/professormetal/ or firstname.lastname@example.org