“Off to College?”

This is the season when high school seniors assemble on campus football fields or wherever large crowds can be accommodated, attired in caps and gowns, to receive diplomas denoting their successful completion of high school. The most often-asked question that most graduates will be asked is not if but “Where are you going to college?”

Over the past few decades, the American people have undeniably evolved a culture in which every high-school graduate is encouraged and expected to go to college. Those that lack that aspiration are deemed socially deficient and headed down the path to failure. It could be said our society harbors a “Yale or jail” mindset.

While the evidence is clear that, in general, prospects for success are significantly greater for college graduates than for those who lack a college education, our insistence on having every high-school graduate attend college is responsible for some dire consequences for our children and for society.

As we look at the issue of illegal immigration, for example, and the argument that illegal aliens do jobs “that no American will do,” we find a nexus between this everyone-must-go-to-college mindset and the issue of illegal immigration.

In my real life, I work closely with the California roofing industry. I betray no secret when I state that a substantial share of the roofing industry workforce consists of “undocumented workers.” For the politically incorrect, that is a euphemism for illegal aliens. It is not that roofing contractors want to hire “illegals” or that the jobs in the industry are undesirable. To the contrary, it is not uncommon for good roofing industry employees to earn $25 to $30 per hour after being in the industry for six to eight years, according to Dave Stefko, president of the Roofing Contractors Association of California and Senior Vice President-COO of Eberhard. That translates into an annual income of over $50,000.

Yet, it is extremely difficult to develop a labor supply to fill the employment needs of the industry. I am not prepared to say these are “jobs that no American will do,” but it is difficult to hire competent and reliable individuals to fill the available positions. Therefore, roofing contractors, much like other employers in agriculture and the hospitality industry, are forced to hire from whatever sources are available. All too often, that means illegals. The problem is due in large part, in the view of Ron Johnson, Executive Director of a Southern California roofing contractors’ association, to the attitude that “everyone must go to a four-year college and there is little opportunity or encouragement to pursue a vocation.”

Those who proclaim their opposition to illegal immigration – and I count myself among them – often fail to understand how much we have unwittingly contributed to the need for illegal aliens by our attitude that everyone should go to college and the resulting devaluation that such an attitude has on work that does not require a college education.

Think about the fact that such a large share of the work that each of us needs every day – repairing the roof, fixing the plumbing, servicing the car, troubleshooting the computer, repairing the fence, just to name a few – and one can begin to appreciate the importance of those whose skills are essential to keep our economy ticking.

Our mania about everyone going to college has deterred a substantial number of individuals from pursuing the vocations. In fact, few high schools even provide the opportunity for students to become acquainted with vocational options. Instead, many students become bored by the time they reach the 9th grade and drop out of high school, believing they are not college material and there is nothing in school that attracts their attention.

Fortunately, there are signs that a few elected officials are beginning to comprehend the damage that has been and is being done by this knee-jerk reaction to college-going. One of them is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Throughout his administration, the governor has evidenced a willingness to restore respect for vocational education, which he has renamed “Career Technical Education” (CTE). The governor’s proposed 2007-2008 budget includes $52 million to reform high-school CTE coursework through partnerships with community colleges, expanding student exposure to career options by building partnerships between public-private entities, increasing professional development opportunities for educators, by designing courses for growth industries, and by doing a host of other things to promote career technical education.

After his arrival in America, Governor Schwarzenegger attended Santa Monica Community College. This little-known fact illustrates and underscores that attendance at a four-year college is not the sole path for building a productive life.

Let us hope the California governor is successful and that the question asked of future high-school graduates becomes, “What do you plan to do after graduation?” And let us further hope that the high school graduate who expresses an intention to pursue an option other than attending a four-year college receives the same respect and encouragement as one that chooses college.