Billionaire Bloomberg Wants 'So-So' Students to Skip College and Become Plumbers Billionaire Bloomberg Wants 'So-So' Students to Skip College and Become Plumbers
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Billionaire Bloomberg Wants 'So-So' Students to Skip College and Become Plumbers

by Liz Dwyer

May 24, 2013

President Obama may have the goal of America having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, but in New York City, that idea's sprung a leak. According to Mayor Michael Bloomberg if you're not at the top of your class you should probably forego higher education in favor of becoming a plumber. Indeed, the New York Daily News reports that last Friday on his radio show Bloomberg added fuel to the "Is a college degree worth it?" debate by saying that for the average student, becoming a plumber makes more financial sense than going to college.

A plumber doesn't waste "four years spending $40,000, $50,000 in tuition without earning income," said Bloomberg. They also don't leave school with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and can make a pretty good living while they're on the job. Added bonus: your job as a plumber (or car mechanic, or electrician) can't be outsourced.

In comparison, college graduates "who aren't rocket scientists, if you will, not at the top of their class," said Bloomberg, will be the ones struggling with fewer job prospects and the significant burden of student loans.

There's no doubt that with student loan debt now topping $1.1 trillion, the cost of college is out of control. Grads forking over their paychecks to Sallie Mae aren't putting down payments down on homes and have less disposable income to pump back into the economy. However Bloomberg neglected to mention that in April only 5.7 percent of college graduates in their 20's were unemployed, while 16.2 percent of Americans in their 20's with only a high school diploma or G.E.D. were jobless. That doesn't mean every grad is making a salary commensurate with their education when they first get out of college, but overall if you're looking at it solely though an employment lens, higher education is still worth the financial investment.

Bloomberg also didn't acknowledge how race, class, gender, and vocational education intersect in America. Who decides which students are smart enough to be rocket scientists? Thanks to tracking, male students from whiter and wealthier backgrounds tend to be put on the college path while their lower income, female, or minority peers are steered toward vocational education. This is exactly why my high school guidance counselor suggested I take auto shop instead of an AP class.

Which begs the question, if I was in high school right now, would there even be an auto shop class for me? New York City's taking some initial steps to ramp up vocational education, and programs like the innovative P-Tech High School, which trains kids in computer science and gives them a shot at a job at IBM help, but nationwide, vocational programs have been gutted. Good luck trying to find a class that helps train a teenager on the basics of plumbing. And, as Daily News commenter NYNICK80 points out, it's not exactly easy to become a licensed plumber in New York City:

"I along with 20 others were accepted into the apprenticeship program out of 2,000 applicants. Those that applied to local 1 camped out for days on a line several blocks long just to get an application. If you don't have family in the union or non union there is close to zero chance you will ever become a licensed plumber. Trade schools that advertise plumbing just take your money and qualify you to be a plumber's helper if that. A plumbing apprenticeship in NY State lasts 5 years. After that 5 years you are eligible to get your journeyman's card and have to wait another 2 years to be eligible to sit for the NYC Plumber's Licensing exam. The NYC exam is the hardest test in the country. That is why NYC has the lowest plumber per capita in the country."

The larger issue at hand, which Bloomberg's comments so aptly reflect, is our societal confusion about the purpose of education. As educator Chris Thinnes warns, "Students should not be misunderstood as apprentices to the world that we have created, but creators of the world they will inherit."

Indeed, Thinnes goes on to note that "the purpose of education is not 'career' or 'college readiness,' but something more like 'society readiness.'" The problem, says Thinnes, is that "we haven't liberated our practices or our policy from the limitations of old language, and we haven't found a way to synthesize the old view with the new."

What Bloomberg is offering us is an old viewpoint on vocational eduction, and it's tempting to take it as sound advice in an uncertain world. Yet it bears mentioning that this is advice coming from the 13th wealthiest man in the world, a man who went to Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Business School before starting his $27 billion dollar empire. Would Bloomberg suggest that henceforth his own descendants should become plumbers if they're not rocket scientist smart? Or will they be brilliant and college bound merely by virtue of proximity to his wealth?

In the 21st century, all children deserve to have equitable choices whether they're related to a billionaire or not. Sure, become a plumber if that's something you're passionate about, but when dispensing advice to the rest of us, Mayor Bloomberg would be wise to remember that despite what it may seem from his Upper East Side home, this is not Metropolis.

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Image via Wikimedia Commons

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Billionaire Bloomberg Wants 'So-So' Students to Skip College and Become Plumbers