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Vocational Education Needed Now More Than Ever

The monetary value of a bachelor's degree in the years ahead will not be as certain as it was in the past. Most of the 14 million new jobs that will be created in the next decade will be in fields that typically can be filled by those with an associate's degree. The trouble is that only about 25 percent of students enrolled in community colleges graduate. Equally disturbing is that too many post-secondary private vocational schools operate without state approval ("More Than 130 Vocational Schools Are Operating Without State Approval," The New York Times, Apr. 5).

That's why a new school in Brooklyn, N.Y. serves as a promising model. The Pathways in Technology Early College High School or P-Tech offers a science, technology, engineering and math curriculum that leads to the simultaneous granting of a high school diploma and an associate's degree ("These Schools Mean Business," Time, Apr. 9). The goal is to equip its graduates with the knowledge and skills for entry- and mid-level employment at tech companies. P-Tech achieves this objective by partnering with the New York City Education Department, the New York City College of Technology, the City University of New York and IBM.

Employers have loudly complained that they can't find skilled workers for jobs made available as baby boomers retire. They say that too many graduates with bachelor's degrees lack the wherewithal to step in to fill open places. We can argue all day long that the purpose of a bachelor's degree goes beyond whether it prepares graduates for immediate employment. But when students go into heavy debt to pay for their bachelor's degree, who can blame them if they demand evidence that they will be gainfully employed?

Holders of a bachelor's degree, for example, can expect to make $2.3 million over a lifetime, compared with $1.3 million for those with only a high school diploma, according to a recent study by Georgetown University. However, "occupational choice can trump degree level. People with less education in high-paying occupations can out-earn people with more education in less-remunerative occupations" ("The College Payoff"). As a result, data about lifetime earnings need to be carefully parsed.

In light of the forecast, P-Tech and its clones are a welcome option, particularly because enrollment in community colleges has fallen in the last three years. In California, for example, enrollment has dropped by 300,000 since 2009, largely because students can't register for the classes they need to graduate. Recognizing the harm, Santa Monica College announced that it will be the first in the nation to offer about 200 courses for $180 per credit hour, compared with $36 per credit hour at present ("2-Year College, Squeezed, Sets 2-Tier Tuition," The New York Times, Mar. 30). But the college subsequently put its controversial plan on hold after students protested and questions about its legality and equity arose. Expecting private vocational schools to meet the demand is no answer because lax state oversight in California has allowed more than 130 private vocational schools to operate without the necessary approval.

Yet I wonder if the problem would be nearly as acute if vocational education was given the status and respect it deserves in high schools across the country. Career and technical education, as it is now called, is less expensive and less wasteful than the current obsession with emphasizing college for everyone ("Why Do So Many Americans Drop Out of College?" The Atlantic, Mar. 30). But don't try telling that to policy makers.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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