Last Updated: May 26, 2016
In a recent article published by Forbes Magazine, writer Nicholas Wyman makes an interesting argument for bringing vocational courses back into the public high school curriculum. Citing U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, he notes that a mere 68% of high school graduates continue their education in a post-secondary institution. Since roughly 40% of that 68% do not graduate from post-secondary institutions, however, that leaves America with a paltry 41% of all high school graduates actually earning a diploma from a four-year college or university.
Data doesn’t lie, so what are parents of teenagers to make of this? Oh, wait for it. Here's where the statistics get even more challenging.
Of those college graduates, 37% secure their employment in a position where a college degree was not even necessary. This leaves only 63% of the 41% who get a degree that was necessary for their chosen careers. For those of you averse to mental math, that’s 25.83%, a mere quarter of the original field of prospective students participating in the pageant of college admission and getting the result they’d actually targeted at the end.
Vocational classes were encouraged for non-academically focused students in the 1950s. Anyone not going to college learned specialized skills with which they procured employment after graduation. In those days, however, the segregation among those populating that route would certainly raise some eyebrows today. Many then positioned vocational skills as catered toward minorities and working class high school students. The rich went to school and got richer, and today’s “I’m first” generations of immigrant and marginalized populations attending top tier schools was unheard of. We’ve come a long way, baby, but there’s farther to go.
It’s time to challenge the persistent prejudice in today’s culture that all students should be encouraged to get a college education and better their lives. The “college-for-all” mania needs to be interrupted with a big dose of reality, courtesy of the actual numbers. When only about 26% of this “all” have “bettered their lives,” how are we to brace ourselves for the pending changes coming courtesy of Obama’s recently-signed Every Student Succeeds Act? Who decides how “success” gets interpreted anyway, and how can we protect the best interests of our society from the sad prejudices that permeated the 1950s?
Think of it this way: 74% of high school graduates who did not reap the advantages of the college prep education they received in high school have no specialized vocational skills education whatsoever. That’s a lose-lose, for both students and the frustrated teachers who were compelled to try to shove Shakespeare down the throat of a gifted auto-mechanic with dyslexia and a defensible hatred of books.
Vocational classes are still taught in many high schools, from cosmetology to the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC). The question is whether they should be expanded, and if so, what role the federal government’s money should play in improving those options and validating students who will simply never be the next Wall Street wunderkind.
When I was in seventh grade, I was forced to take “shop” and almost cut my hand off with an electric table saw trying to pass the class making a misshapen Snoopy bird planter. My brother, today a gifted carpenter, sailed through that class but lived in the shadow of my As in academic courses. Was I more deserving of federally funded support simply because U.S. history and chemistry came to me more easily?
As a professional educator who’s worked with ninth through 12th graders for more then 20 years, I can attest that sometimes it’s hard to tell which 14-year-old will go to college or which teen would have excelled as a plumber making over $100 an hour had he or she been given that particular education and training.
Are vocational skills a panacea? Of course not. A primary caveat with a 1950s-style revival of vocational schools is that lot of 14-year-olds don’t know that they actually excel at math because they don’t apply themselves. Should this potential immaturity cause the loss of the next generation of engineers and chemists?
There is currently a gross underrepresentation of skilled workers under the age of 40—largely, according to the Forbes article, because few under the age of 40 have been taught any type of specialized skill. Instead, they were prepared for a college from which they did not graduate. The academic in me is stubborn, but it’s time for parents, teachers and administrators to fess up. College is not for everyone, and pretending it is only makes smart people feel stupid.
Said another way: If you could choose to be stranded on a desert island with either me or my brother, who never went to college, you’d be well-advised to choose him. He can frame a house, hunt for food, and even run electricity and plumbing lines. With me, despite all that Ivy League glitter, you’ll have a fascinating analysis of current political affairs and esoteric observations of literature throughout the ages. In order for students to truly succeed, we need to ensure Obama’s new ESSA ACT proportionately allocates resources to address the interests of our diverse economy and of all students, not just 25.83% of them.
The three-year pilot period should reveal much. For those of us in the field who’ve opposed Common Core and other federal tethering of funds-for-control, we will be watching to see whether this welcome replacement for No Child Left Behind champions the shift that America deserves. After all, college is big business—billions and billions of dollars worth.
Let’s hope for a shift toward a culture where education is inclusive of all roads to a fulfilling future, one that is congruent with the true strengths and natures of each of our deserving sons and daughters. As a mom of two high school students and one college grad, I work to make higher education fun for all of our teens with my team of Ivy League graduates here in Los Angeles. I love connecting with CollegeXpress parents and am pleased to offer free access to our animated, innovative Passport to the New SAT mobile app to the first 100 parents who write to me my contact page. You can click here to find me online. I look forward to hearing from you!