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Is college the only way to gain success? TV's Mike Rowe, experts say 'no'

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Beltway Confidential,Education,Ashe Schow,Television,Higher Education

Science, technology, engineering and math jobs may be the “sexy” jobs of today, but positions requiring higher education aren’t the only ones to which young Americans should aspire, says "Dirty Jobs" expert Mike Rowe.

Rowe, whose Discovery Channel show highlights the work of Porta-Potty cleaners, animal inseminators and others who do the dirty work of society, joined education experts in a panel discussion Wednesday on why college isn't the only path to success.

“Just the lexicon itself: ‘higher education’ [versus] ‘alternative education,’” Rowe said. “And anything that wasn’t ‘higher’ suddenly got kind of put under this vocational consolation prize thing.”

The audience, made up mostly of think-tankers, journalists and Hill staffers, all dressed in suits — a sea of gray professionalism — drinking wine and cocktails, perfectly illustrated Rowe’s point about higher education versus skills. We in the audience represented those who had been essentially ordered to go to college, while Rowe, dressed in jeans and a brown wool blazer and drinking a beer (beer was offered to the audience after the event), represented the skilled working man.

“You know, we have a way of portraying certain vocations and certain avocations and if you stray too far beyond that, you know, in the production world, you create a disconnect,” Rowe said. “You challenge a preexisting thing — that’s bad in my business.”

Those who portray jobs that don’t require a college degree as somehow less worthy do a disservice to students and the nation by making the skilled job positions tougher to fill, he said.

“There are 3.9 million jobs available right now — three million of them fall under this trade/transportation/commerce area,” Rowe said. “Ten percent of them require a four-year degree. Ninety percent of the big chunk of available jobs right now require two things that we ought to be rewarding: a willingness to learn a useful skill and just the joy of working hard.”

The STEM jobs also get the bulk of government funding, even though many studies now say there will be more STEM workers than jobs available. There are currently 226 government-supported STEM programs. In President Obama's fiscal year 2014 budget, he proposed increasing funding for STEM-related activities but also suggested consolidating the programs down to 112. But that's still 112 government-funded programs for jobs that aren't even available.

“There’s so much skill in STEM — there’s no ‘skill’ in the acronym,” Rowe said. “It just annoys me. It should be STEMS, right? Science, technology, engineering, math and skill. Or maybe 'skill' should be first and 'science' should be last — either way.”

Fellow panelist Richard Vedder, distinguished professor of economics at Ohio State University, added that "America has more janitors with bachelors degrees than chemists with bachelors degrees.”

Steven Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University, said Americans should determine what success means to them, and not what they were told success is by someone during their youth.

“Not everybody ought to be going to universities, and not everybody ought to be going to community colleges,” Trachtenberg said. “People should decide who they are and what they want to be.”

To fix the solution, Trachtenberg suggested awarding students who drop out of college after two years associate’s degrees as a way to reward them for the work they did, even if they didn’t complete four years.

“You ought to get some credit for what you did instead of being put out the door with nothing to show for it,” Trachtenberg said.

When asked by an audience member how to raise the profile of the kinds of jobs that don’t require a four-year degree, Rowe said it wasn’t possible.

“All we can do is change our own perception,” Rowe said.

Rowe said that if he could, he’d write a “'Dirty Jobs' manifesto,” which, he said, “is very libertarian in its roots.

“It’s founded on personal responsibility and a good-natured willingness to take a bite of the crap sandwich,” said Rowe, whose foundation, Mike Rowe Works, was billed as “a PR campaign for hard work, skilled labor, alternative education, entrepreneurship, and innovation.”

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