Benson Tech Played as a Pawn

There it was on the front page of The Epoch Times, an international newspaper distributed throughout the Oregon state Capitol Building: “Only Half of Grads Use Their Degrees.

Too bad Gov. John Kitzhaber doesn’t at least peruse the headlines of this Chinese-based weekly.

“Nearly one-half of college graduates in the United States are overqualified for their jobs, working at places that do not require a four-year college education…,” the story says.

Kitzhaber is committed to what he calls his 40-40-20 plan. By 2025, 40 percent of adults in Oregon will have at least a bachelor’s degree; another 40 percent will have an associate degree or post-secondary credential, and 20 percent will have the equivalent of a high school diploma.

Among the 40 percent who already have a bachelor’s degree are two bank tellers at my neighborhood U.S. Bank. One has a degree in Sociology, the other a degree in Community Health.

In 1970, about 3 percent of bank tellers had bachelor’s degrees. By 2010, almost 15 percent did (and the tellers in 1970 didn’t have huge college debts to pay off).

“There aren’t that many jobs right now in community health,” one of my neighborhood tellers explains. She smiles and shrugs. What else can she do except … go back to school.

She has decided to be an X-ray tech, but it requires an associate degree. So even though she earned a four-year college degree from an Oregon university in 2012, she is planning to go to a community college for an associate degree. Meanwhile, she’s still carrying the debt from her four-year degree.

I didn’t ask the teller what she makes, but a review online of average bank teller’s salaries shows a range of $9 to $13 an hour.

That’s less than what several Benson Polytechnic High School juniors in Electric class hope to make if they can get apprenticeships. If they start apprenticing this year, they could make $12 to $14 an hour and then move into a full-time job when they graduate.

A half dozen of these young would-be electricians recently took part in Benson High’s 93rd annual Tech Show. They were enthusiastic and eager to show what they had learned. Flipping electrical switches in a classroom that looked like a house under construction, one of the students explained the wiring: “This is a three-way. This is a four-way.”

Many of Benson’s classrooms look like workplaces, and the projects look like fun: Arc welding, helicopter engines, video production. The hallways are alive with purpose – displays of housing blueprints by Benson students and cabinets built by students.

During Benson’s annual Tech Show, the students’ pride in their studies and work are a reminder that we all have different interests and innate talents. I wouldn’t want to work on teeth for a living, but I’m glad the juniors and seniors in Benson’s Dental Lab do.

Yet there are adults on school boards who think they can move students around as if education were a chess game. Put one student here and another there, and things will turn out as politically planned.

How else do you explain the Portland Public School board’s insistence on hurting a successful school like Benson Polytechnic High by continuing to cap enrollments? This is the kind of school that should be growing enrollment. Next Monday, the board may vote to turn away more than 200 students who want to go to Benson, forcing them into poorly performing schools.

As American college students pay more for an education that teaches them less with fewer job prospects, we need more Benson Polytechnics and fewer fantasies like “Jefferson High School – Middle College for Advanced Studies.”

Taking Jefferson High School, the state’s largest predominantly black school, and renaming it a middle college and offering college credits through a neighborhood community college, is an excellent example of how to inflate a bachelor’s degree.

And still the cost of college continues to climb.

Higher education in America is just another big business trying to market something. Only in this case, elected officials at all levels of local, state and federal government collude by pushing higher education as the key to prosperity.

It isn’t just Kitzhaber with his 40-40-20 formula. In Barack Obama’s first term as president, he announced that by 2020, “America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

How many of those college-educated workers will be janitors? Economist Richard Vedder of Ohio State University, and the lead author of the study “Why Are Recent College Graduates Underemployed?” found that in 2010 about 5 percent of janitors had four-year degrees.

Nothing wrong with being a janitor. We need janitors. But at what cost? As Vedder notes in his study, there have long been college graduates who enjoyed blue-collar jobs.

“It could be that college graduates actually want to do those relatively unskilled kinds of jobs, although if this is true, it still raises the issue of whether the taxpayers should heavily subsidize the costs associated with providing a degree that has little vocational relevance. … Should we invest less in four-year degree programs and more in cheaper training, including high-school vocational education that once was fashionable?”

Let’s look at what vocational education was like when it was fashionable.

At the recent Benson Tech Show, on display were yearbooks from the last several decades. In the 1979 yearbook. VICA was a very big deal. VICA stands for Vocational Industrial Clubs of America. The clubs were for students in Appliance Repair, Auto Body, Auto Mechanics, Cabinet Making, Metalwork, Graphic Communications, Foundry, Industrial Electronics, Machine Drafting, Radio and TV Repair. At the state VICA Skill Olympics & Leadership conference students would compete in skill events.

“Oregon has 34 schools which have VICA clubs totaling 957 members …,” the yearbook explains. “Benson in its first year as a VICA member had the most winners, totaling 17, with five first-place winners.”

Page after page of photos told the story: Students studying at Benson while also working at local businesses. And the photos are not just of young, white male students. There are young black men and some females. (There was diversity back then; nobody called it that.)

By 2005, the Benson yearbook was thinner and VICA was gone, renamed SkillsUSA. Courses now included Desktop Publishing and Web Design, Photo and Video, Aviation, Dental Assisting, EMS Public Health.

While the SkillsUSA competition is mentioned, there are just as many photos for the “Diversity Assembly” and the Gay-Straight Alliance.

What will the yearbook in 2025 say? Will Benson still be a standout among industrial-tech high schools? Or will the skills competitions feature contests in Janitorial Services?

– Pamela Fitzsimmons


Helplessness and the Status Quo



  • teresa mcguire wrote:

    If PPS would use their own policies on targeted enrollment they would see that Benson needs to continue to be supported. Those schools that are not successful due to size and course offerings need to be closed and/or consolidated

  • Portland schools are a mess!! Benson was a good deal when I was in high school. How come Portland can’t see that?? My brother wanted to go to Benson and got turned away.

    I had a friend at Jefferson that was good at math and ended up with a biology degree or chemistry. She wanted to be a hairdresser. OMG!! Hairdresser!! You’d a thought she wanted to sell crack! The schools want kids to go to college, college, college. My friend ended up in hairdresser school. She’s a good hairdresser.

  • Bradley wrote:

    Yeah, Portland schools are a mess. My son wanted to go to Benson and couldn’t get it. The only way he graduated was me bribing him. I don’t think he got anything above a C.

    He’s OK now. Older and wiser and fortunately he hasn’t started a family.

    Yesterday I went to the city club and heard Kitzhaber speak. I’m not a member so I don’t get to ask questions. I’d like to know how he’s going force kids like my son to do better without bribes. That 40-40 plan he talked about is pie in the sky. Oregon needs more schools like Benson.

  • I listened to Kitzhaber’s city club interview on the radio. It sounded to me like the moderator tried to pin Kitzhaber down about how he was going to accomplish a 100-percent graduation rate. Kitzhaber didn’t provide any specifics.

    Today a friend sent me an e-mail regarding a story she read yesterday in The Oregonian. The story was about another way to graduate.

    “The ever changing graduation rate at PPS is in part due to some children taking a different reading test than all the rest,” my friend said. She wondered if this was how children could all of a sudden move from not achieving to all of a sudden graduating. Keep lowering the standards until all kids can reach them.

    Cheaper than a bribe, Bradley. Of course, it also cheapens everyone’s diploma from a Portland public high school.

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