Colleges and universities in Japan and the United States face unprecedented challenges that will make them unrecognizable in the years ahead. Whether they can reconcile the demands made by students and society will determine their ultimate fate.

Japan is far more realistic than the U.S. in this regard. When the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology recommended the creation of a new type of four-year vocational university, it was evidence that the traditional way of educating students beyond high school was an anachronism.

The mission of this new university is to train more specialists in information technology, agriculture and tourism. To do so, students will be required to spend 600 hours in practical courses, such as internships. At least 40 percent of full-time faculty members will have had at least five years of practical work experience. Two-year vocational and technical colleges that convert into the new model will be eligible for government subsidies.

In contrast, the U.S. for the most part persists in maintaining its old ways. Vocational universities are dismissed by purists as trade schools that are inferior to traditional liberal arts institutions. But with the exception of the Ivies and those in their league, second- and third-tier colleges and universities offer a curriculum that is only slightly more challenging than what students were exposed to in high school.

Moreover, liberal arts graduates tend to fare worse than others immediately after graduation. According to PayScale Inc., a Seattle-based provider of salary data, the typical salary is $39,000 a year. That compares with $63,000 for computer science majors. Even when liberal arts majors hit their peak earnings ages of 56 to 60, they still trail more than 20 percent behind science and engineering majors.

The larger argument made against vocational universities, however, is that what is studied should go beyond preparation for the graduate’s first job. Although that is true, it does not take into account the need to pay the bills. For example, student loans in the U.S. are not dischargeable in personal bankruptcy.

What Japan plans is to elevate vocational and technical education to university status. Doing so will immediately help remove the stigma attached to the field. In contrast, the U.S. persists in overselling the notion that a four-year degree in any field is a sound investment. It’s a myth that is seen in the number of underemployed four-year college graduates.

The best way to make the case for vocational universities in Japan and the U.S. is to track the job placement and retention rates of their graduates. It would create instant accountability by allowing comparisons to be made between their claims and actual results. That is already being done to some degree by rankings published in U.S. News & World Report. But requiring all vocational universities to be more transparent would go a long way toward silencing critics.

A traditional liberal arts education has value beyond its direct economic benefits. But today’s young people in Japan and the U.S. understandably want evidence aside from philosophical reassurance. Who can blame them under the circumstances?

Walt Gardner, who taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District, writes the Reality Check blog.

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