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Vocational Education Desperately Needed

Every time I read about the importance of a bachelor's degree, I have to wonder if advocates are in touch with reality.  The argument invariably refers to the wage premium. But the wage premium is more nuanced than it initially appears  ("Education and the Art of Minibike Maintenance," The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 23).

I have no doubt that holders of a four-year degree who have majored in science, technology, engineering, math, and accounting, for example, earn more than typical high-school graduates.  But what about graduates who have majored in the humanities?  Do they earn more than high-school graduates who pursued a vocational curriculum?  What about community-college students either with or without an associate's degree who acquired technical skills? Finally, how about the distinction between starting and final salaries?

Consider the situation in Houston, the nation's fifth largest metropolitan area.  Workers with the right set of skills command starting salaries of at least $100,000 ("Match Game: Companies Push Training to Close Skills Gap," The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 24).  Companies don't care if they have a bachelor's or associate's degree as long as they can do the job.  How many college graduates who have majored in the liberal arts earn that much to start?

I realize that a bachelor's degree is supposed to be more than job training. But I can't blame students and their parents asking about the pecuniary payoff.  After all, the cost of the degree keeps on climbing, and student debt cannot be discharged.  That's why I urge high schools to accord vocational education the respect it deserves.  We talk so much about meeting the needs and interests of all students.  How about those who find great satisfaction working with their hands?

Other countries have long understood the value of vocational education.  But we persist in the delusion that a four-year college is for everyone.  I see a train wreck down the line when reality finally kicks in. It's not too late to avoid it, but time is running out.

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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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