A Hill Talk Editorial:  Vocational training an enriching alternative to college degrees

The national conversation on college debt has inspired a rather narrow debate on the most effective devices to mitigate the crushing weight of the approximately $30,000 debt many college graduates amass every year.

At roughly $22,000 per year, a student determined to hazard the chances of a college education at a fixed rate of 5.75 percent, for example, will have roughly $147,000 in debt re-payment on a 180-218 month schedule.

Little more than overblown rhetoric, the promise that earning a college degree will sweep recent graduates off to the land of milk and honey – a lifetime of unparalleled earnings and elevation into upper-middle-class status – has grown stale as millions have realized these sentiments have amounted to scarcely more than falsehoods, distortions and the reality of steep debt.

While the discussion of student-debt solutions has grown to involve debt forgiveness, circumstances have evolved where it is necessary to summon a resurrection of vocational programs in our public secondary schools.

Precis:  Not every high school graduate is appropriate for a four-year university and vocational programs are a pivotal vehicle to advance a sample of high school students out of low-paying careers.

On the face of it, meaningful advantages lay with career choices in vocational training programs.  Vocational programs, or career training, incorporate a healthy mix of blue-collar and white-collar career choices and secondary vocational courses can be classified into three types: (a) consumer and homemaking education; (b) general labor-market education; and (c) specific labor-market education.

Vocations, for example, include but are not limited to:  Welding, cosmetology, plumbing, carpentry, locksmithing, electrical installation and maintenance, automotive repair, medical and court transcription and hotel and restaurant management.

Many of the programs are perfectly suitable for secondary school students or can be obtained in two-year training programs which offer certificates, often at a substantially lower cost than college tuition.

Unfortunately, vocational programs on the secondary level have evaporated steadily in the past 30 years.  Whether the victim of budget cuts, de-emphasis of the curriculum or the pernicious lure from the racket of college admissions, vocational programs have decreased in popularity.

Proponents of removing or de-emphasizing vocational programs cite the elimination of career-training curriculum that was designed to steer students into choosing a four-year college as their option after completing secondary school.  Some educators also fear vocational training will lure a disproportionate number of minority students.

Whether centralized or located in public, secondary schools, career and technical education programs peaked in the early 1970’s and experienced a decline in the late 1980’s.  Often, schools cited lack of interest among students or little funding to pay for expensive equipment.  Instead, private two-year programs have emerged and found some success among high school graduates, dropouts or those attempting to re-enter the workforce.

According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, 27 percent of those who are conferred a vocational certificate after high school at a community college or a for-profit organization earn more than the average of college degree holders.  While their income may not always keep pace with all college degree holders, the average annual pay of a welder, for example, is $68,980.  High-paying jobs do indeed exist in production and construction where individuals can earn a livable wage, without inheriting massive debt.

“Career and technical education can prepare you for jobs in which you’re going to earn a very solid middle-class income.  That’s not to say that you’re going to be a hedge fund manager making millions a year, but you will prepare for jobs that will pay more than a living wage,” said William C. Symonds, director of the Pathways to Prosperity Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Financing is relatively easy:  Many career and technical education programs offer certificates for programs in which the average duration is ten months and the cost for many programs hovers around $1,200.  Federal funding often subsidizes tuition for those entering the program.  More significantly, most vocations are highly-transferable skills which enable workers to find constant employment.

Although many of these programs have vanished from our secondary schools, an illuminating answer to both burdensome debt and meeting the need for skilled workers would be to cut college assistance and shift tax dollars to re-introduce vocation training into secondary schools.  This would expand students’ choice of career, offer competition to for-profit schools, lowering their tuition, and expand a skilled workforce.

A more important implication behind this suggestion is the tangible benefits of vocation training on society:   Low-skill jobs offer little future for many urban youth.  In the absence of vocational training in secondary schools, students are more often departing high school bound not for a four-year college, but unprepared to enter the workforce with a worthwhile skill to offer employers. 

Vocational training programs once produced a solid, stable and steady middle class.  A government serious about re-building and sustaining a robust middle class is obliged to create the opportunity in our public schooling system to maintain such a class of resilient workers.

Challenges to career and technical training are significant, but not impossible to overcome.  One of the biggest obstacles is breaking the entrenched view many secondary school students have on the value of a four-year college and deploying the most effective arguments to demolish the belief undergraduate degrees are their only option.  A logical step is to broadcast the financial rewards of careers from vocations.

A defining characteristic of sensible education policy is to offer the widest possible curriculum to secondary students.  The middle class has suffered a crippling blow with the absence of a medley of vocation classes offered in high schools.  Should this pattern continue, the grim alternative is delivering another generation of Americans into the purgatory of unemployment and student debt.


[Bestvalueschools.com] [nces.ed.gov] [work.chron.com] [cew.georgetown.edu] [dash.harvard.edu] [uscareerinstitute.edu] [wsj.com] [Photo courtesy giz.de]