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Vocational Education Now More Than Ever

The case for vocational education continues to fall on deaf ears in the belief that without a bachelor's degree prospects for a gratifying and well-paying career are bleak ("It's a Tough Job Market for the Young Without College Degrees," The New York Times, May 11). 

I hear that same tired argument over and over.  For example, the latest study from the Economic Policy Institute found that only 10 percent of 17- to 24-year olds have a college or advanced degree.  The implication is that those with only a high school diploma are doomed because the unemployment rate for them is 17.8 percent.  That doesn't take into account the ones who can find only part-time work or have given up searching.  When they are included the segment is more than 33 percent.

I agree that these figures are deeply disturbing. That's why I want to know why vocational education is still treated so poorly, particularly when nearly half of new graduates are working jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree ("College Isn't Always the Answer," The Wall Street Journal, May 27).  Only in this country is that the case.  Germany and other countries are far more realistic than we are.  They understand that not every young person has the aptitude or interest in pursuing a bachelor's degree.  Therefore, they treat vocational education with the respect it deserves.  I've never known a time when the need for updated vocational programs in high schools and community colleges has been greater.  Yet we persist in the fiction that a bachelor's degree is for everyone.

It's no wonder that so many students drop out of high school or college.  They would have been far better served by a vocational curriculum.  But their counselors failed them.  The happiest employees I know have no problem getting their hands dirty at their jobs.  I'm in awe when my mechanic diagnoses a problem with my car, or when my plumber solves a drain issue at my house.  I always ask them where they learned their trades.  Almost all say through vocational programs in high school, supplemented by apprenticeships.

There are occasional bits of good news.  For example, Lowe's has renewed its partnership in SkillsUSA with a $1.5 million commitment.  That brings its total contributions to the organization to nearly $14 million since 2006.  But far more funding is needed. Educational historians are going to look back at our obsession with college for all with puzzlement.  I wish I could be around when that happens.

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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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