A few years ago, a strange phenomenon began to appear in polls that asked Americans for their opinions about higher education: People’s responses suddenly started to diverge along partisan lines. Democrats have continued to describe higher education as a mostly positive force in American life, but Republicans’ opinions of college, beginning around 2015, took a sharp turn toward the negative.
This shift didn’t come out of nowhere. Conservative politicians and media figures have in recent years been making a sustained and often vociferous public case against higher education. Instead of college, their argument often goes, young Americans should pursue a career in the skilled trades. And there is one trade that gets held up more than any other as an example of the opportunities awaiting those who shun college: welding.
If you trace back the history of this idea, you eventually get to a kind of welding ur-text: an April 2014 op-ed column in The Wall Street Journal by Josh Mandel, then the Republican treasurer of Ohio, titled “Welders Make $150,000? Bring Back Shop Class.” Its premise was that in rural Ohio, there was such a shortage of skilled tradespeople that employers were regularly hiring welders at salaries of $150,000 a year and up. Mandel contrasted the bountiful opportunities available to blue-collar workers without college degrees with the dismal prospects he said many college graduates faced: “Too many young people have four-year liberal-arts degrees, are thousands of dollars in debt and find themselves serving coffee at Starbucks or working part-time at the mall.”