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Gen Z is Ditching Traditional 4-Year Colleges in Favor of Learning Trades, and This is a Pure Good

This is from last year's epic South Park: Into the Panderverse, which mostly focused on how Disney is officially out of ideas and famously spawned the Cartman catch phrase, "Put a chick in it and make her lame and gay!" But this clip is from the B-story, which was about how every adult male in town like Randy Marsh has multiple college degrees but no actual life skills. While the two handymen in town are getting rich off everyone's inability to fix an oven door or hang shelves in a closet. And they end up as billionaires, buying up social media companies and racing each other into space. 

The major plot was hysterical, spot-on cultural satire. The minor one was nothing less than South Park putting its creative finger on what is probably the biggest issue in contemporary American society: The outright scam that is our modern university system. 

Before we get any further into this, I have no intention of going all snarky Boomer, yelling at clouds about these kids nowadays with their degrees in Advanced Basket Weaving, floobity floo. I'm not reaching for that lazy, low-hanging fruit. And I'm not being anti-education. Becoming more educated is never not a good thing. Every time you learn more about a subject, you become a better version of yourself. In the same way you do if you get into better physical shape. It's a form of self improvement that can help you in all aspects of your life. In short, I agree with the profound words of Emil Faber:

But at some point, we got away from the idea of higher education just for its own sake. Long gone are the days of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis sitting around the pub at Oxford discussing Norse myths and the Latin etymology of words and Tolkien's disdain for Lewis' use of allegory. Somewhere along the line, college became considered more of a jobs program. Where you go and get a degree you can put on your resume in order to get a job that pays better than if you didn't. I believe they've updated the Game of Life, but when we played it as kids, it cost you a lot to take the detour through college, but as you made your way around the rest of the board, you kept getting more opportunities for big paydays than the ones who didn't. 

But if we've learned anything over the past generation or so, actual life is no longer like the game. At least not like the version I used to play. There was no spot on the little wheel you spun to make your move that said, "Find yourself in your early 20s with a degree that doesn't improve your career prospects and preposterously in a student loan debt you'll never be able to pay off. Go on TikTok to share your desperate, existential angst." 

But such is the reality for way too high a percentage of Gen-Z. They were sold a bill of goods that turned out to be a total sham. The FTX of life paths. 

That's the bad news. The good news is that it appears Gen-Z is starting to do what every previous generation in human history managed to, or died trying. Which is to adapt to their situation. To accept reality on reality's terms. At least according to this report:

That's behind a paywall, so here's an article about the article:

Daily Mail - Increasing numbers of Generation Z are opting out of college and turning to vocational schools with hopes of higher wages and avoiding student debt, data shows.

Young people who came of age during the pandemic said they have been deterred from four-year universities by high tuition and the prospect of student debt.

Instead, they are attending trade schools and are being enticed by well-paying job opportunities and satisfying work. 

The National Student Clearing House recorded a 16 percent increase in enrollment at two-year schools with a 'high vocational program focus' and a 2.6 percent rise in community college enrollment in 2023, reported Bloomberg. …

There was a 23 percent increase in students studying construction trades in 2023 compared to the year before, and a seven percent increase in HVAC and vehicle maintenance and repair programs. …

Americans have lost confidence in the value of a college degree over the years, with many suggesting they are unsure that the cost of an education is worth it.

A Gallup poll published in July 2023 found that the share of Americans who trusted higher education fell from 57 percent in 2015 to 36 percent.

Gen-Zers are looking to the trades to make money, with many posting online about the large salaries they make in fields like welding and plumbing.

I say this with total sincerity and without fear of contradiction. This isn't just good news, it's the best of all possible news. On so many levels.

The first is the most basic of economic principles. Supply and demand. America has a surplus of Gender Studies graduates (I know what I promised but you have to give me at least one), and a crippling shortage of skilled workers and craftsmen. That's the very point that South Park was making. When the town is loaded with dads who wear ties and spent eight years studying Geology (not my joke, that's precisely what Stan Marsh says he did) and only a couple of guys capable of making a toilet work, the market is going to make the few rich at the expense of the many. 

Next, is the obvious job security that comes from being in the trades. Most white collar jobs are expendable. Few if any of theirs are. I used to tell my kids that when there's a big storm coming and the news says, "All non-essential personnel" need to keep off the roads, they might as well have said "Jerry Thornton should stay in bed." But the guys who drive the plows, work the utility trucks, and man the first responder emergency vehicles are the ones we can't live without. Not to mention the fact that there's hardly a college-educated worker who reports to a cubicle who's not in danger of being replaced by AI sooner or later. But try writing software that's going to learn how to replace the brakes on a Nissan Rogue, repair the HVAC in a nursing home, frame a Garrison Colonial, or lay the paving stones for a firepit patio in the common area of a golf course residential community. 

And just on a human level, there's a satisfaction that comes from working with your hands and utilizing your skills - actually building a tangible thing - that you simply don't get from facing a screen and going to meetings all day. During the darkest days of Covid, when the whole world was a toxic blend of Zoom calls, remote work and despair, the guys who worked on the construction sites my brother supervises never brought it up. The pandemic wasn't even a part of their lives. Neither were masks or shots or what they were saying on CNN. They just took care of business. They were engaged in the tasks at hand. And not coincidentally, the mental health crisis missed them altogether. We can't say the same thing about college campuses.

But honestly, if this trend continues, the best part of it will be what it does to the universities themselves. Once their enrollment numbers drop enough, so will the tuition rates they get to charge. Again, supply and demand. Good luck demanding 90-grand or whatever a semester once more and more families with kids in school catch onto the fact your degree doesn't necessarily lead to success. Once more high school grads start deciding a fulfilling career of steady employment where their skills are in demand all over the place so they can live wherever they want beats the ever-living shit out of mountain ranges of student loan debt and having to work in a city you can't afford. Then the days of professors making high-six figures to teach a couple of classes and force students to buy some crappy book they wrote are numbered. 

On a personal level, the high school my sons went to does this thing at graduation where, as the announce each grad's name, they tell everyone where they're going to school. Which is all well and good, I guess. Well intentioned, at least. But it also leads to this weird dynamic where it sort of implies the kids who aren't going right to college are losers somehow. Like they're aimless drifters who plan to sit home getting high and playing GTA, and not industrious young adults with a plan to start working and making their way in the world. That's the disservice this obsession with Higher Ed has done to a couple of generations now. So here's hoping this trend continues. I'm not exaggerating at all when I say that if this tears down our higher education system as we currently know it, America will be headed for a much brighter future.