Trade School or College?

By the end of the 1950s, the focus of education in the United States shifted from vocational and job-ready skills to preparing all high school students, through college prep courses, for college. However, today, statistics indicate that the highly coveted bachelor’s degree doesn’t seem to carry the weight it once did.

The latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicate that approximately 68 percent of high school students attend college. The remaining students graduate with neither academic nor job-ready skills. But even the 68 percent aren’t fairing that well. Almost 40 percent of these students, as low as 10 percent for those in poverty, don’t complete a four-year college program, wasting a lot of time and money, and often acquiring significant student debt. Of those students who do graduate, the BLS found that about 37 percent end up with jobs they could’ve obtained with a high school degree.

In the United States, a college degree has been viewed as the pathway to success, and it still is for many. Earnings studies do show that college graduates earn more over their lifetime than high school graduates. However, these studies don’t take into account the amount of debt these students take on in pursuit of higher education (the outstanding student debt balance in the U.S. was $1.5 trillion as of 2018, according to the Federal Reserve) nor that more than half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. In addition, these studies don’t include data on those high school students who graduated with vocational training. These graduates have gone on to well-paying, skilled jobs, creating a rosier picture for them than many of their college graduate counterparts.

The U.S. economy has changed. The manufacturing sector is growing and modernizing. This, along with the demise of vocational education in high school and retiring baby boomer, skilled trades workers, has created, and will continue to create, a significant demand for skilled labor. The skills shortage in manufacturing today has created a wealth of opportunities for high school and unemployed and underemployed graduates alike. Many of these jobs are attainable through apprenticeships, on-the-job training, and vocational programs offered at community colleges.

Even with the above statistics aside, the traditional 4-year degree isn’t for everyone. People have a diverse range of skills and learning styles. Some do best in a lecture hall or classroom, studying math, biology, history and other traditional subjects, while others learn best by doing, and would thrive in a studio, workshop or shop floor.

There are still many advantages to a 4-year degree. As stated before, most college graduates will earn more money over their lifetime, especially if they continue their studies through master’s or doctoral degrees. However, the cost/benefit equation to higher education is changing every day. The education system needs to recognize this and that vocational schools can offer students with valuable skills, resulting in competitive paying jobs and a secure financial future. Students need to be exposed to the possibility of vocational training as an alternative to the college degree, helping both them and their parents see a variety of paths to a successful future.

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