America’s students and parents have good reason to fear life after college. Though Bachelor’s degrees are now needed more than ever, over the last 15 years the average wage for someone holding one has declined by 10 percent, and the net worth of those under 35 has gone down by nearly 70 percent since the early 1980s. Employers are using the Bachelor’s degree as a screening device, but neither students nor those hiring them think the degree proves that the person who earned it is ready for the world of work.

Worries about the preparation of college grads for the world of work have been around for a long time. A century ago, business groups and labor unions came together to support a stratified system of high-school education that trained some students for specific tasks, while giving others a broad education that would allow them to continue their studies in college. The movement led to the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which financed vocational education, initially for jobs in agriculture and then in other industries. The goal of separate-but-equal education for vocational and academic students predictably degenerated into protecting wealthy people who wanted a broad education for their offspring, while leaving those in vocational tracks vulnerable to losing their jobs when technology and other economic changes made their specific—and narrow—skill sets obsolete.

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