Thursday, March 6, 2014

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 olds 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 CHF 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 CHF 5,000 per month. The reality is that my daughter's friend will probably earn a starting salary of between CHF 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 CHF 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 CHF100,000 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


  1. Poor Lea! Earmarked to cut flowers the rest of her life by the Swiss system that knows what a person can and should do for the rest of their lives by age 14! What they don't tell Lea is that her generous starting salary will be approximately the same when she is 30, 40 and 50 years old without any chance of changing careers. America is full of successful professional men and women who had a dream and passion for what they wanted to do despite their early academic performance or what others decided was best for them. Where would you want to raise your child? I know my answer.

  2. It is possible to change careers or go back to school in Switzerland. If you look at the most successful, passionate entrepreneurs in the US, they didn't have a college degree. I know florists who are over 50 years old, and they loved their careers and still love cutting flowers.

  3. Exactly my point. In the USA it is possible to succeed economically at all stages of life in a free open market regardless of degree. A child can go to a University to study whatever is their passion and desire. Whether they are successful or not depends on them not an institutional pre-determination. The salient point is not that a florist over 50 loves their careers and cutting flowers, rather that their career is determined by a quasi Orwellian state at age 14. Don't get me wrong, I visit Switzerland yearly and enjoy the pristine environment and cultural differences. I just wish it would get past it's obsession to appear perfect, which it is not and it's national sense of deeply felt insecurity especially vis a vi the USA.

  4. In Switzerland, it is possible to succeed economically at all stages of life too regardless of degree. A child in the USA can only go to university to study if their parents can afford it, or if they are smart enough to get a scholarship (in which case such kids would have the chance of a free education at Switzerland's universities). Most of the super rich locals in my area never went to university. They did their apprenticeships and built their businesses using their hard work ethic and their focus on detail and high quality. Their lives were not predetermined.

    My point is that the non-academic track in Switzerland is highly regarded (unlike in the USA where only academics count). Switzerland's educational system pumps out a highly skilled work force which supports a healthy economy and social system.