You're talking about trade schools? Good. That's a step in the right direction. It doesn't go far enough though. One unfortunate reality of our existence is that people differ markedly in cognitive skill. These differences are innate and immutable. Not everyone can benefit from an education.
If we pitch education as the way to address to inequality, we're not only going to waste a lot of money on useless education, but we're also going to give these negative-marginal-value people false hope of economic success.
We need to figure out an alternate way of living for people who are intellectually incapable of contributing to a modern technologically advanced economy. A basic income is a good start.
I agree on the education front, but disagree that there are significantly many negative-margin-value people. Personally I think a huge amount of that perception comes from the fact that people just don't fucking move to better economic opportunities. That problem may be solvable as things like distributed call centers and other location-independent work becomes more common.
There is another dimension to this problem though; national borders and status.
There are a TON of really smart mexicans and other immigrants of every nation who are stuck into an effective caste system based on their status.
In fact, modern American society would literally fall apart if all the mexican service workers were raptured.
My point is that while we look at those who cannot contribute to a technologically advanced economy, we also are pigeon-holing many many others who are based on the complexities of citizenship status problem.
The result would be extremely visibly racist, but I think the right response to that is to understand that existing immigration laws are in effect equally racist. It's the visibility that would change, rather than the degree.
Now it's racist for a country to provide services to its own citizens that it doesn't provide to the citizens of other countries?
The alternative to college education isn't going to look like a college.
What you end up with ends up looking a lot like a college. Now, we can talk about changing how funding for college works, but that's a separate discussion from changing the fundamental model, which I don't see as a practical goal.
There doesn't need to be one universal answer to this suggestion; it would be a boring suggestion if that were the case. Instead, you could look at the market for white-collar jobs and break it down looking for lucrative subsets, and then devise some kind of apprenticeship scheme.
If you could eliminate the 4-year degree requirement for HR directors, company controllers, purchasing managers, or jobs like that, replacing it with something tailored to the specific job, you could allow people to get an early start on a white-collar career while offering them opportunities later in their career to get something like an MBA or a JD.
But because the only current credible signaling mechanism we have is a 4-year degree, there is currently no good way to get the kind of job that might legitimately demand an MBA or a JD without first getting a degree in Russian Lit.
Any college replacement scheme is going to have to perform the same kind of filtering if it's going to be useful, and anything that performs this kind of filtering will be subject to exactly the same controversies the college system is subject to today. This outcome is because disparities in intelligence matter, and as long as we these differences exist and we need jobs with a certain cognitive threshold, we'll need something like college to indicate that certain candidates possess the needed traits.
It's important that it be very hard to lie about these qualifications, because anyone who could, would, due to the clear economic benefits of doing so. The only surefire way to determine whether someone has intellectual chops is to make him or her do something intellectual. That's what college is.
The good news is, we don't have to dig into that. All I'm saying is that it's calamitously expensive, across multiple axes (direct cost, opportunity cost, brittleness of opportunities) to assess capacity to perform the job of "HR Director" by looking for a 4-year degree.
I doubt that you believe a UMich Russian Lit degree is intrinsically an important qualification to work in HR (HR: one of the fastest growing white-collar jobs in the US, hence that example). I'm saying: that's a market inefficiency, and if you could find a way to arbitrage it, you could make a mint while making it possible for more people to get stable white-collar employment without reading Solzhenitsyn in a dorm room.
Leaving the defeatist mentality aside, instead of saying they do not fit our current model, why not work on personalizing education. People go to school and meet a few professors with this attitude and they leave convinced they cannot be made good for anything. Not good.