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Opinion: Back to basics in education and away from vocational indoctrination

Indiana’s economic future will be primarily determined by the share of Hoosier adults who graduated from college. If that share remains low, our economy will languish, our incomes will continue to fall further behind the national average and our best-educated citizens will relocate elsewhere. This truth cannot be too often repeated, but it begs other questions, mostly about schooling, and the needs of citizens who do not go to college. 

For most of us, the bulk of our formal education comes in K-12 schools, rather than college or graduate school. Public schools remain the most common preparation for college and life afterward. A good K-12 experience can prepare us to learn throughout our life while giving us the basics of science, mathematics, literature and the arts. 

For kids heading to college, rigorous high school programs are important. But, for kids not heading to college, the rigor and substance of K-12 are even more critical. This is the last time those students will receive formal education designed to make them a learned person. That fact is reason enough to question the way Indiana now focuses vocational education. Yet, the General Assembly has legislation before it to align curriculum from primary to college to meet workforce needs. 

Now, to be clear, I don’t know what specific skills today’s middle school kids will need in two decades, but neither does anyone else. I am merely being honest about my inability to know the unknowable. For the record, acknowledging such limits to knowledge used to be a feature of conservatism. 

Continuing labor market changes, including automation, artificial intelligence and much more widespread adoption of today’s technologies make it nearly impossible to predict job-specific skills of the future. Asking business leaders these questions is folly. A full half of today’s businesses will be gone by 2030, and they are as ignorant as the rest of us about these changes. 

To accentuate the point, imagine today’s labor markets and technologies from the vantage point of 2000. The first Blackberry Phone was two years away, China was a modest importer, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was a high school sophomore. Now imagine how a committee in Indianapolis is going to design an effective, integrated curriculum to meet workforce needs two decades into the future. They are not. The state’s recent track record on such matters should generate significantly more humility. 

The only skill that we are certain will be needed by today’s kids in 20 years is the ability to learn and master new skills. Our certain ignorance about the specific skills needed in 2040 is a compelling argument for more focus on basics in K-12 education; stronger basic math, science and literacy. The focus on vocational schooling is stunning hubris. 

We will always need workers with skills that differ from those taught in a college classroom. Workers with different types of education bring to bear different skills into labor markets. But, it is a remarkable fact that both wages and productivity for high school graduates are highest in places with large shares of college graduates. Today, the worst employment options for non-college graduates are in cities with few college graduates. This suggests that labor markets reward non-college skills that complement those of college graduates. These skills are almost certainly not those we are presenting to unwitting middle and high school students as a gateway to non-college careers. 


Michael J. Hicks, PhD, is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Hicks earned doctoral and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Virginia Military Institute. He has authored two books and more than 60 scholarly works focusing on state and local public policy, including tax and expenditure policy and the impact of Wal-Mart on local economies.

5 Comments

  1. You sir, are not awake. I sure know one college that my daughter will not attend. You always fail to mention that we have tried the method you suggest for the last 30 years. I know you want to pat yourself on the back along with all of the other left leaning professors that pretend that people can only effectively learn how to be a “success” in life if they have access to the omnipotent college instruction. Give me a break. People are becoming wise to this message and realize with more technology available it will be less likely for them to require a traditional college education. I don’t even think that is up for debate. Online education is here and it is not going away. Student’s now have immediate access to the most talented, creative people in the world so the need to go to a tradition college should be in steady decline. So you better find a different message to save your job.

    1. I don’t think you actually read the article. You might have just looked at the title and the the author is a professor which set something off, because the writer of this isn’t saying what you think it says. Mostly because the whole point of the article is that if college degrees become unnecessary, then K-12 needs to embrace the well rounded skills required to function as a decent citizen as opposed to either the bare minimum or a hard trade that may be automated in twenty years. Who on this planet is opposed to teaching children more skills than what they are currently taught?

      That you’ve somehow interpreted a pretty benign idea into yet another “evil leftist indoctrinating our children” post makes me think we don’t just need Dr. Hick’s proposal in the future, but we probably could of used it for a long while.

  2. Oh I read it. I also have read his other posts. They speak for themselves. You interpret them differently, which certainly is fine.

    1. Sure. Just seems odd that you basically call this guy a fraud and not worth his job when both your point and the writers point are pretty much on the same side.

  3. Mr. Hicks rarely acknowledges a persons right to choose the kind of life a person wants to live. Some people make poor choices and end up being a burden on the tax payer. They have children that they have to single parent and need public assistance to help them make ends meet. Others choose to live a simple life with a basic job at Walmart or a factory, placing relationships with friends and family more important than obtaining wealth. Others may be more ambitious by owning their own construction company or obtaining a college degree and working in management for a corporation. Others serve their communities by taking employment with local, state and federal agencies.

    Here’s what we do know. If you get a high school education, before you have any children and a job when you graduate high school, college or vocational school, the chances of you every falling into poverty are slim. If you save up 3-6 months of rent and utility payments, you can weather a rough storm or two should you lose your job. No matter what job you have, if you live within your means (spend less money each month then you make) you will live a successful stress free life. Who wouldn’t enjoy that kind of life no matter what income you make?

    Daryl Hensley, Jasper IN

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