Since the mid-20th century, the mantra of government education policy has been “college for all.” Believers couch their support in terms of the “college premium,” the wage boost that comes with a four-year degree, and the need to train young people for the “jobs of the future.” But there’s a hint of nostalgia in the refrain, since it evokes a time when America was able to vault regular farmhands and factory workers into the white-collar middle class with a fix as simple as a GI Bill.
It’s a policy that no longer deserves its good reputation. Yes, college-for-all idealism has given some poor kids opportunities that they never would have had, but it has also warped middle-class childhood, encouraged test obsession in our schools, and left many graduates with a debt albatross hanging around their necks. Worse yet, it has demoralized a significant portion of the population with little talent for, or interest in, academic work, and thus contributed to the angry state of our politics.
Since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, a growing number of educators and policymakers have brought their attention to the next generation of this noncollege population. These are the students whom Chris Arnade calls “back row kids” in his moving new book, Dignity. They’re the ones who sit in the back of English class, pained boredom on their faces — at least those whose heads aren’t on their desks — while the college-bound sit in the front rows, taking careful notes for the midterm exam. Dismantling the college/noncollege binary should be high on our list of national priorities.
One inspiring alternative to noncollege purgatory: Williamson College of the Trades in Media, a three-year school for young men, 22 miles southwest of Philadelphia. Barring a philanthropic miracle, it’s not fully replicable — for one thing, tuition and room and board are free, thanks to a century-old endowment and donor generosity. But everyone interested in improving the lives of back-row kids and renewing a sense of dignity in a depressed lower middle class should study the school’s ethos and curriculum.
Williamson students choose to specialize in one of six trades -- masonry, horticulture, carpentry, among them. But no less important is the school’s character-building “curriculum” immersing students in the core values of “faith, integrity, diligence, excellence, and service.” The efficacy of its unusual program can be seen in its many success stories.
Bill Bonenberger, a onetime masonry student, for instance, now heads his own construction and development company, W.B. Homes, and chairs the Williamson Board. Bonenberger, like many from humble backgrounds, assumed that he would never be able to afford postsecondary training, much less a residential college. After Williamson, he took an entry-level job at luxury home builder Toll Brothers, moved up to project manager, and eventually left to start W.B. Homes
Alumni often remain involved with the school, giving advice and support to students, as well as going on service trips with them. They know from personal experience that they have something invaluable to offer them: aspiration. Back-row kids haven’t seen many successful people up close. The donors and other alumni embody a path toward success. “We march people in front of them who made it,” Williamson president Michael Rounds explains. “They tell them: ‘Look, I was just like you, and Williamson gave me the tools to become someone.’ The kids are dazzled.”
“I learned the most important things I know at Williamson; you treat people like you want to be treated, you volunteer, you get the job done,” Tom Goeke a Williamson grad, now CEO, told the students at one recent chapel meeting.
For someone who believes that success comes only with a Princeton degree, this may sound like sentimental hooey. To the 20-year-old from Allentown, whose dad left home when he was 3 and whose mother is strung out on opioids, it’s an unfamiliar vision of possibility. The proof is in the numbers: 74 percent of Williamson students graduate in three years, and 98 percent of them go on to a job. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of those grads proceed to get higher degrees. Compare that with low-income kids who take a more conventional route: 61 percent of high school grads from the lowest-income quartile do manage to enroll in college, an impressive rise from 1970’s 46 percent. But only 26 percent of those students get a bachelor’s degree within six years — most dragging a ball and chain of debt behind them.
Pennsylvania is one of the worst states in the country for college affordability. Nationally, unemployment rates among young college graduates, particularly male grads, have been rising. Since 1990, over 40 percent of grads are “underemployed” — that is, working in positions that don’t, or shouldn’t, require a diploma. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the bottom 25 percent of college grads earn no more than their peers with only a high school diploma. Very likely, many Williamson kids would have added to these grim statistics had they enrolled in a four-year academic institution.
Meantime, community colleges and trade schools could learn some lessons from Williamson. These days, low-income families and communities, with high rates of family breakdown and drug addiction, are often unable to provide a solid environment for children to learn key character strengths; their boys are particularly at risk. You don’t have to have a million-dollar endowment to create the sort of school community that encourages a sense of competence, drive, service, and resilience in kids who wouldn’t otherwise come to know their full potential.
Williamson challenges conventional wisdom among liberals and in the education establishment about the dearth of opportunity for kids who don’t go to a traditional four-year college and the toxins of traditional masculinity. And partly because of that, Williamson changes lives.