Since the mid-twentieth century, the mantra of government education policy has been “college for all.” Believers couch their support in terms of the “college premium,” the wage boost that comes with a four-year degree, and the need to train young people for the “jobs of the future.” But there’s a hint of nostalgia in the refrain, since it evokes a time when America was able to vault regular farmhands and factory workers into the white-collar middle class with a fix as simple as a GI Bill. As others have noticed, it’s a policy that no longer deserves its good reputation. Soaring tuitions, low college-completion rates, a debt albatross around borrowers’ necks: these are some of the woes that have trailed in the wake of college for all.

Yes, college-for-all idealism has given some poor kids opportunities that they never would have had, but it has also warped middle-class childhood and encouraged test obsession in our schools. And it has demoralized a significant portion of the population with little talent for, or interest in, academic work, and thus contributed to the angry state of our politics.

Since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, a growing number of educators and policymakers have brought their attention to the next generation of this noncollege population. These are the students whom Chris Arnade calls “back row kids” in his moving new book, Dignity. They’re the ones who sit in the back of English class, pained boredom on their faces—at least those whose heads aren’t on their desks—while the college-bound sit in the front rows, taking careful notes for the midterm exam. Dismantling the college/noncollege binary should be high on our list of national priorities.

One inspiring alternative to noncollege purgatory: Williamson College of the Trades in Media, Pennsylvania, a three-year school for young men not far west of Philadelphia. Barring a philanthropic miracle, it’s not fully replicable—for one thing, tuition and room and board are free, thanks to a century-old endowment and donor generosity. But everyone interested in improving the lives of back-row kids and renewing a sense of dignity in a depressed lower middle class should study the school’s ethos and curriculum. Williamson challenges conventional wisdom among liberals and in the education establishment about the dearth of opportunity for kids who don’t go to a traditional four-year college and the toxins of traditional masculinity. And partly because of that, Williamson changes lives.

Say the words “trade school,” and you probably wouldn’t visualize Williamson’s 220 acres of lush, rolling hills, and handsome stone Victorian buildings designed by Frank Furness, the well-known Philadelphia architect of the Fisher Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s a residential institution where 19- to 22-year-old kids from hard-up families line up in ties and jackets every morning to be inspected before going to chapel and pledging allegiance to the American flag, and where anyone who violates the no-drugs-and-alcohol policy is immediately out on his ear, no exceptions. And some might laugh at the notion of promising trade-school graduates starting with pay as high as $75,000, and maybe even $105,000, a year debt-free—a future that many Ivy League grads would envy.

If this sounds weirdly anachronistic, you’re on to something. Williamson was founded in 1888 for poor boys, mostly orphans, and many of its founding traditions and rules, including its all-male student body, continue today in essentially nineteenth-century form. These days, few of the students are orphans, but their résumés contain plenty of hard-knock details: dead, disabled, or runaway fathers; alcoholic mothers; drug-addicted siblings; multiple step- and half-siblings by different parents; even homelessness. Most are white, from the less pricey suburbs and exurbs of Philadelphia; some of the 30 percent of minority kids are likely to be from downtown Philly or Baltimore. Williamson doesn’t have the funds for extensive outreach, but the school has the attention of a number of feeder high schools in the Philadelphia area; many students hear about the school from relatives or teachers. If they’re interested, they have to pass the ASVAB (Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery) and visit the campus, where they interview with staff. Last year, the school accepted fewer than one in three applicants.

With its old-timey rituals, rigorous scheduling, and immersive culture, Williamson has a military-school feel. Indeed, the school’s president for the past six years, Michael Rounds, is a West Point graduate and veteran of the 101st Airborne who served in Iraq. Students line up every morning at 7:15 to the sound of reveille as a crew of four students raises both the American and Williamson flags. At 10 PM, students are back in their dorm rooms. Beards and mustaches are forbidden. Freshmen must do kitchen patrol once a week, cleaning the dishes of staff and fellow students. If students break rules, even relatively minor ones like walking on the grass instead of the campus pathways, they find themselves working “hours” on the grounds crew on a Saturday.

Yet Williamson is far from a boot camp, and Rounds is no “Yessir! No sir!” sort of leader. He knows that his school’s character is radically out of sync with the twenty-first-century American culture that these boys are used to. But his lively face and hearty laugh reflect the school’s unexpected warmth, which leavens its occasional soldierly feel. “You gotta put your arm around these guys,” he says. All the staff, teachers as well as administrators, are keenly aware that society at large, so sure that academic achievement is the mark of individual merit, doesn’t think much of these back-row kids. A big part of the school’s mission is to undo years of degrading messages and replace them with a sense of competence and self-worth. “In school, they were always the dumb kids,” Arlene Snyder, the spirited vice president for institutional advancement, told me. “Voc ed kids are put down, but Williamson gives them confidence.”

An early turning point arrives when freshmen attend their first jobs fair, held every autumn and spring. These events are a revelation for freshmen back-rowers, pulling the curtain open on an alternative reality, where they can dream of far more than the minimum-wage drudgery and uncertainty that they might have assumed was their lot. Now people come from far away just to meet them, to offer them jobs with more money than their parents could have imagined. As many as 120 companies, including top construction and power-plant firms, compete for the students. Boeing is hiring Williamson guys; so is the giant power company Exelon. Recruiters are on hand primarily to interview seniors, but either through the fair or shop teachers’ contacts, underclassmen can expect to find summer internships—perhaps more than one. This past summer, a masonry student worked at the historic Mount Laurel Cemetery in West Philadelphia, repairing some of the antique headstones. During the school year, Cadence Aerospace flew ten Williamson men to its Seattle headquarters to introduce them to the company and describe career opportunities. Some of them had never flown on a plane before.

“Seventy-four percent of Williamson students graduate in three years, and 98 percent go on to a job.”

Many Williamson alumni have graduated into the big time from these modest beginnings. Bill Bonenberger is one. Now head of his own construction and development company, W. B. Homes, and chair of the Williamson Board, Bonenberger, like many from humble backgrounds, assumed that he would never be able to afford postsecondary training, much less a residential college. Then he found Williamson. He graduated with a masonry degree, took an entry-level job at luxury-home builder Toll Brothers, moved up to project manager, and eventually left to start W. B. Homes. Class of 1984’s John Barnes, another trustee, is Exelon Power’s president. Tom Goeke is CEO of Milacron, an Ohio-based plastics-processing equipment firm, with more than 5,000 employees. The school boasts plenty of other success stories along these lines.

Alumni donors aren’t giving money to ensure spots for their children or grandchildren—Williamson’s graduates typically earn too much for their own offspring to make the school’s income cutoff. Nor are the philanthropists maneuvering to have their names engraved on plaques. They know from personal experience that they can offer something more valuable: aspiration. Back-row kids haven’t seen many successful people up close. The donors and other alumni embody a path toward success. “We march people in front of them who made it,” Rounds explains. “They tell them: ‘Look, I was just like you, and Williamson gave me the tools to become someone.’ The kids are dazzled.” “I learned the most important things I know at Williamson; you treat people like you want to be treated, you volunteer, you get the job done,” Goeke told the students at one recent chapel meeting.

For someone who believes that success comes only with a Princeton degree, this may sound like sentimental hooey. To a 20-year-old from Allentown, whose dad left home when he was three and whose mother is strung out on opioids, it’s an unfamiliar vision of possibility. The proof is in the numbers: 74 percent of Williamson students graduate in three years, and 98 percent of them go on to a job. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of those grads proceed to get higher degrees. Compare that with low-income kids who take a more conventional route: 61 percent of high school grads from the lowest-income quartile do manage to enroll in college, an impressive rise from 1970’s 46 percent. But only 26 percent of those students get a bachelor’s degree within six years—most dragging a ball and chain of debt behind them.

Isaiah Vansant Williamson, the founder of his namesake school, was an exemplary Quaker-American type, a man who seems to have marched off the pages of a Victorian morality tale. The son of a Pennsylvania farmer, embodying an austere Protestant sensibility, he was the opposite of the Gilded Age, mansion-aire bigwigs who shaped the American image of great wealth by the end of the century. Williamson was dedicated to self-improvement and proverbial good works. Apprenticed as a young boy to a local shop owner and learning the ins and outs of the Philadelphia-area dry-goods business, he eventually opened his own wholesale company, racked up a fortune, and retired at 35. He became known around town as the “threadbare philanthropist” for his unassuming clothes and for giving away large sums to local hospitals, the University of Pennsylvania, and area foster homes. Fittingly, many, perhaps even most, of his donations arrived anonymously.

The school was a different kind of project for the benefactor: it was ambitious, visionary, and actually put his name in stone. His initial $2 million gift included the 220-acre campus, the architect-designed buildings, and a $1 million endowment. (Isaiah’s endowment, now buttressed with endowment gifts of others, covers 70 percent of the students’ tuition; the school has to raise $2.5 million each year to cover the rest.) Alarmed by the apparently family-less, destitute “corner boys” he saw loitering around downtown Philadelphia, Williamson came up with the idea of a free boarding school to train kids like these for work in the trades. Understanding that his charges needed a home as well as training, he insisted on small dorms and a small student–faculty ratio to create a family-like intimacy. (In an age before children’s rights and family courts, Williamson’s orphaned students had to be indentured to the school, an arrangement that, amazingly, lasted until the 1950s.) Sadly, the munificent Isaiah died before his school opened.

That the curriculum remains so close to Williamson’s original plan testifies to both his vision and the underrecognized durability of trade work. The technology of trade work has changed, and no doubt will change more in the future, but both the pleasure and the need for building, making, and fixing things endure. Students choose one of six trades, or “shops,” for their three years of training: masonry, machining, carpentry, painting, power plant, or horticulture. When touring the shops, you put on protective glasses and enter a light-filled, barn-like space, with a dozen or so students in dusty work clothes quietly absorbed in laying bricks or cutting metal. Each year, they take on more sophisticated projects: second-year masons, for instance, build an arch; in their third year, they construct a fireplace. In the afternoon, they change out of work clothes and put on coats and ties for academic classes that complement their hands-on occupation. There they learn how to read blueprints, do basic accounting, write for business and industry, and the like. All take speech class—and the students’ poised self-presentation is noticeable. They also practice their emergent trade skills by helping to maintain the campus: power-plant students keep the campus’s lights on; horticulture students plant and prune and fertilize the 220 acres; paint-shop boys paint and repair dorms and common spaces, providing what Snyder calls a “living laboratory for the students.”

Associate degrees at most schools take two years. To accomplish all that Isaiah had in mind, Williamson requires three. The philanthropist wanted the extra time for his charges to absorb an ethos unfamiliar on the streets—and foreign to more than a few of today’s entering Williamson students. The school would give its undergrads something more than what we now call technocratic skills and “job readiness”; something more, even, than focus, organizational skills, and cleanliness, necessary as those are to workplace success: it would promote old-fashioned character ideals. The core values “faith, integrity, diligence, excellence, and service” are painted prominently in the chapel and repeated in many chapel talks. (The school treads lightly when it comes to denomination, but the notion that faith grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition helps shape boys into Williamson men remains key to the institution’s identity.) Administrators insist on accountability and an understanding of peer effects. “When a student is dragging down other students by his behavior . . . it’s a good thing” to insist that he leave, they maintain. “[C]ertain students are only going to bring the school down and change who we are.”

From its founding in 1888, the school has emphasized not just technical proficiency but also old-fashioned virtues like faith and integrity. (COURTESY OF WILLIAMSON COLLEGE OF THE TRADES)
From its founding in 1888, the school has emphasized not just technical proficiency but also old-fashioned virtues like faith and integrity. (COURTESY OF WILLIAMSON COLLEGE OF THE TRADES)

Williamson wanted to know whether the character-building education model was working, and the John Templeton Foundation funded Tufts University for a three-year study (2012–15) comparing Williamson students with their peers at several other community colleges and tech schools. Williamson’s young men scored higher in diligence, gratitude, honesty, thrift, and optimism; theirs is the opposite of the grievance culture increasingly common at some elite colleges. Students in both groups had seen considerable family upheaval and frequent moves, but Williamson students were more “family oriented” in their aspirations. “I want to be the best dad I can be. I want to be the best husband,” one Williamson student told the researchers. Students at the other schools had a more diffident attitude when asked about whether they wanted a family. Tufts psychologist Richard Lerner, who headed the study, concluded that Williamson “transforms the character of young people.” The writer and mechanic Matthew Crawford titled his first book Shopcraft as Soulcraft; that’s a good way of describing the Williamson ideal, too.

Williamson’s character education is grounded in an old-fashioned ideal of masculinity. At the morning chapel I attended one Friday, an alumnus wearing a red Williamson tie gave a talk he titled “What It Means to Be a Man: One Man’s Perspective.” “Good morning, Williamson men!” he began. “The world tells us that men seek power, that they are defined by the size of their house or their money. . . . Williamson tells us what makes a man is something else.” He went on to describe three famous figures exemplifying the humility and self-restraint that made them fine men: George Washington, who rejected the title of king for the more modest “Mr. President,” thereby “choosing country before self”; Jackie Robinson, who “had the courage not to fight back” when mentor Branch Rickey deliberately tested the ballplayer’s self-control with a racist slur; and Eagles quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, “who could have gone to any team but preferred to stay with the Eagles.” (Alas, Foles has since moved on to the Jacksonville Jaguars; but at the time, students applauded the local hero.)

Students hone their technical skills and their characters through service work. Each year, a group of 15 flies to a distressed area to help build and repair. Donors, alumni, and the school’s chaplain join them. In the past few years, they have gone to Houston (to rebuild homes after Hurricane Harvey), the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Other students volunteer with an area nonprofit. In daily life, seniors mentor younger students, particularly first-years struggling to adapt to the school’s demands. When I asked about the transition from teenage civilian to Williamson man, one student mentioned that early on, he kept nicking his face as he tried to do a close shave. Seniors offer younger students reassuring advice on everything from shaving to romantic breakups, serious family troubles, and the inevitable regrets about missed keg parties.

It’s fair to ask: Is a 19-year-old who agrees to join a school that will deprive him of weed and beer, force him to wear a suit and tie every day, and to wake up near dawn—and who sticks to this regimen for three years—different from a typical 19-year-old? The students I spoke with seem blessed with some mixture of inborn conscientiousness and capacity for reflection; of course, they also had the luck to find out about, and be accepted by, Williamson. Devonte Whitley, a senior in masonry, is a good example. When I ask Devonte if he balks at Williamson’s rules, he answers: “I love dressing up. . . . I think discipline is very important in a man’s life.” He and other students I interviewed had undergone a sort of reverse socialization, taking stock of the people around them—in some instances, of their dysfunctional families—and committing themselves to a better life. Devonte has 13 full, half-, and step-siblings through his parents’ serial relationships. His absent father “was an indirect inspiration to me. He showed me exactly what I don’t want to be.”

So, yes, it’s likely that Williamson’s magic is working, in many cases, on a self-selected group of kids. Remembering a high school teacher’s advice, “plan your work; work your plan,” a masonry senior named Gio “made a 60-year plan. You gotta think about your future.” (He started a job at W. B. Homes the Monday after graduation.)

Consistent reminders on social media of how much better life could be elsewhere is a regular test of their resolve. During his time at Williamson in the 1980s, Bonenberger recalls, “You didn’t know what your buddies at State were doing.” Today, news about frat parties and the fun you might be having but for the weird ideas of a nineteenth-century killjoy are hard to escape. Williamson students will refer wistfully to the Facebook pictures of friends at Penn State, beer mugs raised high, alcohol-enhanced grins on their faces and pretty sorority coeds at their elbows. What are they doing in some Victorian monastery?

That’s not to say that the school can’t handle hard cases. Last year, the Give Something Back Foundation funded scholarships for ten kids who are either in foster care or have incarcerated parents; seven are now moving into their second year. This year, the foundation is paying Williamson a portion of the tuition not covered by the school’s endowment for 19 Give Something Back kids. Luis, a recent carpentry graduate, was homeless for several years before finding his way to Williamson. His mother had sent him to live with relatives when things got really tough. He bounced around between relatives; he was suspended from school and finally dropped out. He seemed destined to spend a short adult life on the streets and in jail. He was lucky to get hooked up with a Philadelphia charter school giving young adults a second chance to earn a GED and to have a teacher who pushed him to apply to Williamson. He thrived there, graduated, and now works as a carpenter with a Philadelphia construction company.

Devonte and Luis may not be destined for a corner office at a major corporation, but they look to be headed for a well-paid life in the trades. It’s hard to imagine what the prospects would have been for these boys, and many Williamson students like them, if “college for all” prophets had had their way. Pennsylvania is one of the worst states in the country for college affordability. Nationally, unemployment rates among young college graduates, particularly male grads, have been rising. Since 1990, over 40 percent of grads are “underemployed”—that is, working in positions that don’t, or shouldn’t, require a diploma. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the bottom 25 percent of college grads earn no more than their peers with only a high school diploma. Very likely, many Williamson kids would have added to these grim statistics had they enrolled in a four-year academic institution.

Williamson needs to remain relatively small, but it has space to grow. Bonenberger says that the school turns away as many as 300 kids each year. Over the long term, the board would like to double enrollment. Rounds wants to increase the percentage of minority students, but he needs more money for outreach. He’d even like to see a sister trade school for girls.

Meantime, community colleges and trade schools could learn some lessons from old Isaiah Williamson. These days, low-income families and communities, with high rates of family breakdown and drug addiction, are often unable to provide a solid environment for children to learn key character strengths; their boys are particularly at risk. You don’t have to have a million-dollar endowment to create the sort of school community that encourages a sense of competence, drive, service, and resilience in kids who wouldn’t otherwise come to know their full potential.

Equally important, a school like Williamson can remind us of what previous, less deracinated, generations were more likely to understand: real craftsmanship is itself a source of deep satisfaction and communal respect. “I never ceased to take pleasure in the moment, at the end of a job, when I would flip the switch. ‘And there was light,’ ” Matthew Crawford writes about his early career as an electrician. “It was an experience of agency and competence. The effects of my work were visible for all to see, so my competence was real for others as well; it had a social currency.”

And it can lend dignity to many overlooked back-row kids.

This article was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

Top Photo: As many as 120 of America’s top companies, including construction and power-plant firms, compete for the school’s graduates. (COURTESY OF WILLIAMSON COLLEGE OF THE TRADES)


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