STONE: Young Men Are Avoiding College. Let’s Build Them Something Better

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Austin Stone Contributor
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Last month, two higher education stories rocked the news.

One was a video from Arizona State University, where two young men studying quietly on campus were aggressively harassed on video and told to leave by activist Sarra Tekola because one had a “Police Lives Matter” sticker on his laptop. Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters called for the harassers’ expulsion, and Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar tweeted, “I love ASU but this needs to stop.”

Just weeks before, The Wall Street Journal released a lengthy report entitled “A Generation of American Men Give Up on College.” The gender gap between total women and men enrolled this year grew to 60%/40%, while the total number of college students decreased by 1.5 million.

Given the open hostility they experience, American men avoiding campus is no coincidence — and it’s become an institutional crisis for higher education. But it could also be an opportunity for men to forge new paths after high school. With mounting student debt, degree inflation, “wokeness” in the classroom and COVID restrictions that have long outlived their usefulness, there is no better time for men to vote with their feet and avoid the “four-year mistake” that has been the default for decades.

Even as recently as ten years ago, college was understood as the escalator to upward mobility. Sure, anyone could make a living in skilled trades or by starting a local business, but it took real grit and aptitude to finish a four-year degree — so the diploma, it was promised, was a golden ticket to the big leagues. But many millennials learned that wasn’t true at all. Instead of opportunity, they found themselves in debt, jobless and sometimes cancelled by their school over political ideology.

The Wall Street Journal report spotlighted 19-year old Jack Bartholomew, who was forced as a freshman at Bowling Green State University to take all his classes online. Bartholomew quit school and took the only job he could find, packing boxes at an Amazon warehouse. He commented, “I just feel lost.”

Jack Bartholomew didn’t fail, Bowling Green did. He deserved an option that would engage him and set him up for success. Now is the time to build that option on behalf of all the young men who, like Jack, feel lost.

Some infrastructure for this purpose already exists. An NPR report this month, entitled “You don’t need a bachelor’s degree to land a high-paying job,” points to trade licensing, apprenticeships and on-the-job training that regularly helps college recusants land six-figure salaries. These types of programs, which especially appeal to men, have been around for generations. As Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” points out on his website, “there are more than 7 million jobs available across the country, the majority of which don’t require a four-year degree.” Rowe’s charitable foundation offers scholarships for high school graduates who want to attend trade school, not college.

But what about students who want to enter so-called “elite” industries like journalism, finance, government or tech? Young men should not be made to feel these are the only respectable options — but there’s no reason they should avoid them, either. Can high school graduates become startup founders or filmmakers without a college degree?

The answer is yes, thanks to a growing paradigm shift away from obligatory college. Google, for example, offers a six-month skills certificate program that places graduates in roles at Google and other top companies immediately, without the time and expense of a four-year degree. Another company called Praxis matches applicants with a full-time, paid apprenticeship that replaces the employer’s college degree requirement. The oldest and most competitive option in the college alternative space is the prestigious Thiel Fellowship, a $100,000 two-year grant that pays students not to go to college — and to focus on entrepreneurship instead.

America’s labor market has never favored job seekers so strongly. As millions opt out of work, employers are desperate — so they can no longer hold a diploma over applicants’ heads. This is a huge opportunity to build new credentialing systems grounded in practical preparation and streamlined paths to success. Universities are bogged in outdated assumptions and red tape, and employers are starting to realize the difference between four-year degrees and job readiness.

Men no longer need to subject themselves to hectoring university administrators or woke zealots. Instead of names on a class roster, let’s make them leaders by giving them the freedom to innovate, work hard, and earn success.

Austin Stone is Managing Partner at Beck & Stone. He is currently on assignment in Washington D.C., serving as COO for the Center for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE) and Senior Advisor for Latham Saddler, candidate for U.S. Senate. He can be found on Twitter at @ausstone.