For years now we’ve heard about the rising costs of college tuition, the student debt problem, and how minimum wage jobs don’t pay enough. Too many people are caught in the same Catch-22: unable to pay for more schooling with their current income and unable to earn more money without more schooling. Some blame greedy banks and greedy schools, libertarians blame government loans, and certainly there is more than one contributing factor to the problem. Unfortunately, not enough people talk about how our K-12 system deserves partial blame. Why do we spend twelve years and tens of thousands of public dollars to educate a single student only to tell that student to borrow tens of thousands more to get a job that pays well? Also, it’s not always a simple matter of going to a “good” school vs. a “bad” school; we need to rethink how we define “good” and “bad.”

Right now, we don’t always task our public schools with the job of preparing students for the workforce. Many simply see K-12 education as a way to prepare students for more education, be it at the college level, a trade school, or some other program such as Praxis. That’s not to say that public vocational schools don’t exist at all, but the vast majority of American public and private schools don’t qualify graduates to work for very high wages. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, people between the ages of 25 and 34 with no education beyond high school earned on average, around $30,000 a year in 2012. At 40 hours a week and 52 weeks a year, that’s $14.42 an hour.

The reason high paying jobs are high paying jobs is because they require training that a limited supply of people have. In order to get these jobs, people have to either work for the company at lower wages first to gain the necessary experience, or pay a third party such as a college or trade school to provide the necessary training. Low paying jobs are low-paying because the employer can easily train most people to do these jobs. Employers have little incentive to pay high wages for someone with specialized training if they can quickly train an unskilled laborer who will work for lower wages to do the same thing. One of the problems with our public school system is that most graduates leave school with the same basic skills and there aren’t enough opportunities for specialization. Few high school graduates are part of a “limited supply” of people with a specific skill set. If students had more opportunities to tailor their education to their interests and build a more specialized skill set, it would mean two things.

Students could pursue higher education without borrowing as much much money because they would be able to earn more money while pursuing a degree. If they chose to work for a while to to save up the necessary funds before starting school, it wouldn’t take as long to develop the surplus needed to afford higher education.

More people would stand a chance at earning a decent living without higher education if they didn’t think college was right for them.

One of the biggest differences between our K-12 education system and our higher education system is the concept of choice. When a student goes to college, the government gives grants and loans to help students go to their dream school, whether that dream school is public or private. A student can pick any public university in their state and still receive in-state tuition, even if it’s not the closest one to their home. At the K-12 level, the government gives you a neighborhood public school and has little interest in helping you if you believe that it’s not the right school for you. Giving students and their families more freedom to attend the school of their choice would give schools incentives to create specialized programs to help their graduates earn more money, just as colleges do. Go on a single college tour and I’ll bet you that college will tell you about all sorts of unique programs to attract students. What if our public K-12 schools went to the same lengths to push the field of education somewhere bigger and better than where it is now?

In our current system, the best public schools are in high income areas and those hurt most by the system are those that can’t afford to live in these areas or attend a private school. The ones who need higher paying jobs the most are the ones who pay the price for our inefficient schools. The issue of school choice is crucial to helping people escape poverty. Helping the poor to break the cycle of government welfare without going into crippling debt has to be a priority. Increased school choice would allow for students to have more specialized training when they graduate. It would give more students the opportunity to earn more money without a degree or while pursuing one. Most people like to have as much control over their own lives as possible. Shouldn’t that control be extended to something as important as schools?

This was originally written by Students For Liberty blog team member Anne Butcher.