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Rethinking Vocational Education

It’s no secret: even as college enrollment rates are climbing, the American public is growing increasingly disillusioned with higher education’s rising costs and dubious returns on investment. Yet in an ever more interconnected world, the need to become a globally competitive, highly credentialed worker often eclipses individual desires to pursue alternative paths. One such alternative path, vocational education—sometimes referred to as career and technical education (CTE) or vocational education (voc-ed)—suffers from a particularly acute image problem, thanks to its historical role in perpetuating inequality and its lingering reputation as a plan B for low-performing students. But now, when companies are scrambling to find skilled trade workers and students are facing stigma for choosing options outside the traditional educational path, is it finally time for voc-ed to get a makeover?

In the past, voc-ed has reproduced and exacerbated patterns of inequality. Students who were supposedly low-performing were funneled into voc-ed, but, as is often the case with pathways that track students into educational programs, minority and low-income students were placed in vocational programs at a much higher rate than white and middle-class students. Moreover, voc-ed was viewed not as a viable alternative educational choice but as a dumping ground for students seen as ill-suited for higher-level academic work. Voc-ed tracks tended to teach trades with declining employment rates, like carpentry and auto repair, and instructors were out of touch with the realities of the contemporary job market.

Today, high school graduates navigating their postsecondary paths face a different job market, one in which vocationally oriented workers are in short supply. In 2017, just eight percent of undergraduates enrolled in certificate programs, which tend to be geared toward vocational skills. Although workers with vocational credentials are slightly more likely to be employed than their peers with academic qualifications, thirty million jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree remain unfilled. Eighty percent of manufacturers in the United States report a moderate or serious shortage of qualified applicants for skilled production positions, a problem that will only intensify as the older cohort of blue-collar workers retires.

Given the number of open positions for skilled workers, the office of the Washington State auditor, which investigates voc-ed statistics, recommended that career guidance begin as early as seventh grade and incorporate career options that require less than four years of college. Without the backing of policy makers, educators, and families, however, such shifts are unlikely to occur. NPR notes that a principal federal source of voc-ed funding, Tech-Prep, has been out of operation since 2011; further, a quarter of states reduced their own funding for postsecondary CTE in 2017.

This lack of support for voc-ed can be attributed in part to the prevailing college-for-all narrative. A traditional four-year education has come to represent the sole pathway to success over the past several decades, starting with the passage of the GI Bill in 1944, which covers a portion of educational expenses for eligible veterans and their families. Enrollment rates at traditional colleges in the United States have risen 28% so far in the twenty-first century, and elite high schools routinely tout the top institutions at which graduates matriculate as selling points. The widespread implication that a college degree is a prerequisite for participation in society has led more students to pursue higher levels of education: according to the United States Census Bureau, the number of American adults with a master’s degree has doubled since 2000, and the number of doctoral degree holders has more than doubled. This pattern, in turn, leads to credential inflation: as the average level of education rises, job seekers need more education to be hired for a given job, despite the fact that the nature of the job itself has not changed.

For some students whose interests, life plans, or financial situations do not align with the realities of college, vocational education has emerged as a viable alternative option—if only it could manage to shed its stigma. “It is considered a second choice, second-class,” said Patricia Hsieh, president of San Diego Miramar College, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “We really need to change how people see vocational and technical education.” One obvious point in favor of voc-ed is the significantly lower cost, particularly in the light of low four-year graduation rates. Less than half of college students finish their degrees, and that rate can drop to as low as 10% for students living in poverty. This statistic suggests that voc-ed could offer a pathway to social mobility for low-income students, but, given the historical legacy of racist and classist voc-ed enrollment, educators are wary of replicating harmful patterns. Kate Blosveren Kreamer, the deputy executive director of Advance CTE, spoke in an NPR interview about the “tension between, do you want to focus on the people who would get the most benefit from these programs, and is that tracking?”

Increased integration between four-year programs and vocational education could present a solution. If students are introduced to voc-ed early on and come to view it as one of the many pathways to a successful career, stigmas may begin to fall away on their own. Further, presenting voc-ed as complementary to earning an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree rather than mutually exclusive with traditional postsecondary studies could help attract more high-performing students, thereby mitigating voc-ed’s reputation as a last resort. A review of data on more than one hundred thousand students in Arkansas, where most high school students take CTE courses, reveals limited evidence of tracking and suggests positive implications for voc-ed’s future potential. Out of the 89% of high school students in at least one CTE class, high-achieving and low-achieving students were enrolled at similar rates. CTE enrollment was also correlated with improved prospects: taking just one CTE course above the average increased the probability of graduating high school by 3.2 percentage points. Further, students who chose to “concentrate” in a particular discipline by earning three or more credits in a formal program of study were 21 points more likely to graduate.

Needless to say, students who graduate from high school are better positioned to access a variety of paths, whether that means two-year college, four-year college, further vocational study, or immediate entry into the job market. In a piece for Inside Higher Ed, Gregory Seaton discusses his daughter’s choice to enroll in a high school CTE program, writing, “As an African American, first-generation college graduate, I have slowly come to recognize the competitive advantage that a lab tech CTE program will provide my daughter.” Seaton notes that his initial reservations based on the troubled history of voc-ed receded in the light of the opportunities afforded by the program: “When she graduates, Layla will immediately be able to earn about $40,000 a year as a lab technician. She will be positioned to join the labor market, complete an associate’s degree or pursue a four-year degree.”

Regardless of improved job-market eligibility, however, a CTE course or short-term certificate program typically does not impart the same kind of critical thinking skills afforded by a two- or four-year course of study. Recently, higher education policy advocates have raised this concern with regard to the JOBS Act, a bipartisan proposal that would make certificate programs as short as eight weeks eligible for Pell Grants. Critics are also skeptical of the way the proposal views a certificate program as a step in a longer educational career that eventually leads to a degree, claiming that even when vocational students are allowed to “stack” credits between programs taken at disparate times, they rarely reenroll after their initial certification.

In order to address the disconnect between short-term voc-ed and longer-term programs, some higher education professionals are beginning to embrace the idea of increased integration between career-focused and academically geared courses of study. The study of Arkansas high school students supports the conclusion that CTE and traditional four-year programs need not be at odds. The report’s authors write that policy makers should support dual enrollment and make credits “stackable” from high school into college so that CTE courses can serve as a clearly defined pathway to postsecondary programs. Seaton, the father of the future lab tech, expresses a similar sentiment, suggesting that college administrators create and communicate on-ramps for CTE grads to help them matriculate through degree programs.

Increased integration can take the form not only of carving out pathways to college but also of collaborating with employers to offer career-oriented programs to students of all ages. For instance, in a Washington Post piece advocating for improved career training for high school students, the former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education Jeffrey Selingo points to a partnership between a Frito Lays plant in Macon, GA, and a local community college and technical academy. Courses offered to high school students through the alliance are designed to prepare them for apprenticeships at the plant, to be undertaken concurrently with an associate’s program at Central Georgia Technical College. “Steering more students into technical education in high school is not the either-or proposition that so many educators make it out to be,” Selingo asserts. “It doesn’t mean that those students will skip college.”

If educators in the United States do move toward a more vocationally oriented secondary and postsecondary paradigm, they might take Europe as a model. Countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland prioritize vocational training for high school students, and high school graduates in those nations have a smaller earnings gap compared with college graduates than do high school graduates in the United States. According to London’s Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, Switzerland is one of the few countries in the world where voc-ed and academic education are held in equal esteem and where vocational students need not rule out college from their future plans. Further, investment into career guidance support means that students are apprised of all the pathways available to them.

Ultimately, vocational education at its best can serve as a tool not of repression and inequality but of social and economic opportunity. And uplifting voc-ed doesn’t have to mean giving short shrift to the liberal arts and humanities. As Sean Gallagher, the founder of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, puts it in an interview with PBS, “It’s often either vocational training or liberal arts. But if you look at what employers want, it’s both, and I think that’s often lost in the dialogue today.” By keeping in mind the common goals of equal access and free choice, education policy advocates can hope to build a future in which students of all races and classes can see their options clearly and select the path best suited to their needs—one on which voc-ed represents not a dead end but an open door.


Photo by Barn Images via Unsplash

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