When many people think of apprenticeships, they think of something from about two hundred years ago which wouldn't work in the modern world. At the very least, they see this as only being an option to train for a very small number of very specialized occupations. Still, it might be well worth considering reintroducing apprenticeships as an alternative to college in the United States for a number of reasons.
First, the main reason why most students go to college is the hope of getting a job. But very little of what one learns at college would be applicable to most jobs. Unless one's shooting towards an "academic" career like engineering or medicine, it's worth asking why so many employers demand college degrees for jobs which have nothing to do with academic knowledge. In Germany, most people learn their vocation through a paid apprenticeship which typically lasts for three years. During this time, the apprentice does on the job training a couple of days a week while visiting a vocational school on the other days. Although apprentices are only paid the equivalent of about $280 a month, it's quite a bit of money for the young people who do apprenticeships, who are normally between 15 to 18 years old at the time that they start. Also, the vocational schools are part of the public school system, so the vocational training is free.
Such a system would be a step forward in the US as it would reduce the number of young people starting out in life with a load of student loan debt. In the US, even most vocational schools charge some type of tuition. Considering the fact that a high school graduate has spent 13 years in school, it's interesting that most high school graduates have few, if any, vocational skills, when the supposed idea behind the school system is to prepare the kids for jobs. It seems that in the US, one has to go into debt in order to get vocational training if one doesn't have parents who are able or willing to pay for it. The only alternative is often unskilled, low-paid jobs which don't offer much chance for advancement.
Also, the option of paid apprenticeships would improve life on the college campuses, as the disinterested students might not be so interested in spending four years with academia when they can be spending the same time earning money. It would help to restore the universities' original image of being institutions of education and research, instead of the increasingly rowdy party image that they have. If only serious students attended colleges and universities, the degrees from these institutions would retain their value. In fact, their value might even increase, as it would be no longer necessary to dumb down the coursework and practice grade inflation for the sake of the students who really aren't college material. The campuses would also be safer, as not so many tough kids would make it in.
Finally, paid apprenticeships might reduce the costs of college. In most European and Asian countries, college is either low-cost or free. If American colleges were populated with fewer students, but students with better academic skills, it might be possible to provide American students with this same advantage.
Some people would say that it's not fair to only give the smarter kids the chance to go to college. After all, shouldn't the American value of equality give everybody an equal chance? I admit that I also thought it was unfair when I first heard that only about 15% of German young people ever attend a university. That was before I came to Germany. Most German young people aspire to an apprenticeship, and consider it a bad thing if they don't find one. On the other hand, America's colleges are filled with students who don't really want to learn. About half of them drop out before getting their degree, many of them during or just after their freshman year. As most colleges are heavily funded with public money, that's a lot of wasted tax money, let alone the money that their parents often waste. If the reason why they want to go to college is to train for a job, it would be better to use the time and money to actually teach them a trade.
As the costs of education continue to rise and the number of student loan horror stories rises with them, it's worth considering changes in the education system to lower costs. If the US is supposed to be the land of opportunity, these reforms should try to make it possible to learn a vocation without excessive costs. Apprenticeships would be one good option, as would teaching more vocational skills in the high schools, so that kids would leave the public school system with the job skills necessary to support themselves.