Washington Monthly - September/October 2015 - 64

Figure 1: Upside-Down Degree Program of New York. So after three years of hard work and great experience but very little money, he decided he was ready for a change and moved back to Milwaukee. He quickly discovered that without a bachelor's degree his ability to get any job other than cooking was going to be tough. But older, wiser, and a little bit calmer, he was ready to consider getting a bachelor's degree. That is, until he looked into it and discovered that he would have to start completely from scratch. None of the courses he completed at MATC would transfer to a fouryear school. After three years in a college-based apprenticeship program and three years of solid work experience, he was still the equivalent of a brand-new high school graduate in the eyes of higher education. Jeffrey is currently working as a sous chef at an Italian restaurant in downtown Milwaukee. He is enjoying being higher up in the kitchen food chain than he was in New York, but the prospect of earning a true middle-class salary, the kind you can raise a family on, seems impossibly distant to him. If he had a bachelor's degree, he would have a better shot at more remunerative jobs in, say, food service management-half of all such jobs now require a BA, and food service managers with a BA or more earn $20,000 more a year than such managers with an associate's degree or less, according to the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce. He'd also love to someday open his own restaurant, a risky proposition for which the experience and connections that come from managing restaurants is almost a necessity. But the thought of starting a BA from scratch leaves him deflated. Four years is still just too long. 64 September/October 2015 The traditional higher education system works great for lots of students. But it forces countless others, like Allen and Jeffrey, to choose between two bad options: either enter a four-year bachelor's degree program for which they are not ready, academically or emotionally; or pursue some kind of job-focused training program that, while valuable, may effectively put a ceiling on their careers. It's a dilemma millions of middle- and upper-middleclass families know well, but it's even worse for working-class and poor families. At the end of the day, Allen's parents could afford to pay for a four-year degree, even if they knew a lot of the course work would wash over their son. But for many low-income students, spending four years in school before even starting a career is not an option. That's part of the reason why so many low-income students end up in technical training programs-not because they are not interested in earning a bachelor's degree, but because they need to earn a decent income along the way. Many of those technical programs lead to good-paying jobs. What they don't lead to is a bachelor's degree. And without a BA, there is only so far you can reasonably expect to rise in this country. The lack of good options for my nephews and students like them up and down the income scale is not inevitable. It's possible to envision a better option, one that rejects the false and damaging logic that job training and experience must always come after, not before, academic training. In fact, some colleges are experimenting with alternative "upside-down" degrees, in which students who choose job training and work experience right out of high school Evergreen State College The "Learn Something Useful First" degree: At Evergreen State, students can study job skills before abstract academics and walk away with a four-year BA.

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Washington Monthly - September/October 2015

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