Parents have always encouraged their kids to get “a good education” so they can nab a well-paying job. Back in the day, this meant simply graduating from high school. In recent decades, the definition of “good education” has shifted to mean earning a four-year college degree. Even high schools are on board with that. These days, the center of the U.S. high school curriculum is college prep.
But does a college education make sense for everyone? Mounting costs of tuition have grabbed the attention of many politicians, and a national debate on the affordability of college rages on. The question is, is there a better way for young folks to secure a high-paying job without racking up thousands of dollars in debt?
The answer may lie in a return to old-school styles of teaching. Raise your hand if you remember high school shop class. I do.
Vocational training, or “shop,” became big in the 1950s on the theory that students should follow separate educational tracks according to ability. For the college bound, that meant taking traditional academic courses. Kids not interested in attending college took basic academic courses along with vocational training.
But critics of vocational training believed the approach diminished students’ abilities, and was too often guided by socioeconomic class rather than ability. So what was once a perfectly respectable educational path has since fallen out of grace with parents and educational leaders.
But why not bring vocational training back to classrooms? After all, not everyone goes to a four-year college.
Recent figures estimate that only about 68% of high school students attend college. And not all of these kids are faring well – almost 40% of students who start a four-year college program won’t finish. These young adults walk away with wasted time and money, often saddled with heavy student loan debt. Among those who finish, about one-third will end up in jobs they could have had without their degree. Over 53% of recent college graduates are unemployed or under-employed. The numbers demonstrate that our system may need reworking.
So, looking back at our 32% of students who don’t head to college after high school, what happens to them? These kids graduate with a dearth of both academic and job skills. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Our departure from vocational education in high school has led to a skills shortage in manufacturing. In essence, we’ve left a wealth of career opportunities on the table – for both high school grads and under-employed college grads in search of interesting and lucrative careers.
Schools could rework their mission to prep kids for the “real world” in a way that mirrors that world. Read as: a return of vocational training. The U.S. manufacturing sector continues to grow and modernize. With that growth comes a wealth of challenging, well-paying, highly skilled jobs for those trained to do them.
For example, computer coding is a much-in-demand skill that can be mastered without four years of college. Why not begin that learning process in high school and provide a coding certification program at the local community college? With that kind of educational opportunity available, coding could become the 21st century’s premiere “blue collar” job.
And after all, not every kid wants to be an expert in Russian literature. Some students are more geared toward the mechanical and technical. These kids would thrive in a studio or workshop setting, putting vocational skills to work for themselves — and the economy.