Is academia the be-all and end-all?

Last week, my 14-year old daughter's friend Lea* came over. During lunch, I asked Lea which subject she was planning on studying after completing school. For those of you who may not know, the ninth grade marks the end of obligatory schooling in Switzerland.

"Florist," she answered with certainty.

"Wow, wonderful," I responded.

I haven't always sounded so positive about the Swiss educational system.

Being a product of a "liberal arts" education, I have struggled to understand the benefits of  Switzerland's "dual system."

The Swiss "dual system" begins at the end of primary school, or the sixth grade. Kids with good grades are separated from those with less than good grades. Those children with good grades are put onto an academic track and enter "Sekundarschule;" at 16 they go on to "Gymnasium"which leads to the "matura," a requirement for entering university. Those who didn't get such good grades are put on a vocational track and enter "Realschule;" at 16 they begin an apprenticeship program, a combination of on-the-job training and class studies.

The vocational track with its structured apprenticeship program is highly respected in Switzerland.

I used to ask:  How can a 16-year old know for sure what he or she wants to be when he or she grows up? Then I thought about it further: I know plenty of 25-, 35-, and 45-year old people in the USA who have no clue what they want to do with their lives and continue to live off their parents.

Only 25% of teenagers in Switzerland enter Gymnasium, leaving the rest to purse a trade and an apprenticeship. And as soon as they do, they start earning somewhere around SFr 700 per month. By the time they are 20 years of age, and two to three years before a college student would get his or her BA, they are earning real salaries, and in Switzerland the average is nearly SFr 5,000 per month. 

The reality is that my daughter's friend will probably earn a starting salary of between SFr 3,700 and 4,000 per month upon completion of her 3-year education and practical training. This is more than what the average American college graduate could hope to earn upon graduation.

The average starting salary for class of 2013 new college graduates was SFr 3,350 per month, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

In contrast to Lea, American college graduates will have spent more than SFr 100,000 getting that undergraduate degree. Many start their professional lives with ten years of debt. Lea's education will have been free.

Considering a 3.5% unemployment rate (versus 7.3% in the USA), skilled workforce and high standard of living, and 7% of its population living below the poverty line (15% in the USA), perhaps, Switzerland is on to something.

*Name changed

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