Why Community College or Trade School Might Be Better Than a 4-Year Degree
Years ago, as PTA president of my daughters’ elementary school, I was required to attend a district-wide meeting every month. It was time I gave up semi-reluctantly since I was already spending so many hours volunteering at the school, and for the most part, I dreaded these meetings that were a parade of statistics, blurry slides, and bleak budget forecasts. I often joked that I only went for the free coffee and doughnuts, which wasn’t too far from the truth.
The one thing I did enjoy was the last part of the session where the parents had the floor. I always found it gave me a real sense of what was going on in our school community, beyond the carefully-worded speeches and pie charts.
During one of those meetings, a mother got up to speak about how much the recent elimination of shop classes in our district was going to hurt her son. She spoke emotionally about how being in these classes had finally helped him find something he was passionate about – fixing cars – and how he now knew what he wanted to pursue as a career.
But by now eliminating the program, she argued that the district was showing how little they valued anything other than academic pursuits. She appealed to the board members to keep in mind kids like hers, who might not be headed to Princeton or Harvard, but still wanted to be valued as they sought what was meaningful to them. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room when she finished talking.
That mother’s words had such a huge impact on me, and I thought of them often when it came time to start thinking about college for my daughters. With one pursuing music and the other headed towards a career in art and film, I knew I would consider trade schools and community colleges since a traditional college path might not be the best for either of them. But I also knew that I would be battling against the status quo that said the only respectable thing to do after high school was to pursue a four-year degree at a university.
See also: 5 Myths About Community College, Busted
The single-minded pursuit of a university degree and the de-emphasis on vocational training were spurred by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which was surrounded by talk that it would better prepare students for the job market and increase their chances of finding a job. But some experts argue that it did the opposite, by widening the gap between what schools are teaching and what jobs are actually available once these students graduate.
Kevin Fleming, an educator and author who calls himself a “recovering academic elitist” knows this all too well. Although he has earned two Bachelor’s degrees, two Masters degrees, and a Ph.D., he says it was his Career and Technical Education certification that saved him from poverty.
In his compelling video, “Success In The New Economy,” (above) Fleming points out how a perceived correlation between higher degrees and higher income has fueled the “college for all” philosophy that has turned into the “university for all” philosophy. In arguing for students to consider trade schools and community colleges as alternatives to a four-year college, he suggests broadening the goal to “post-high-school credential for all.”
“The idea that you’re going to graduate from high school, go to a four-year university, get a degree in sociology and that’s going to magically get you a career – this idea is statistically out-of-date.”
What students have not taken into account, he says, is that their university degree may not have prepared them for the world of work. “You may be well educated,” he cautions, “but not every degree is direct preparation for employment.” In what he calls our “highly technical knowledge-based economy,” Fleming asserts that knowing what you’re good at and developing hands-on skills can be more valuable than “getting a degree in something simply to get one.”
Julie Ju-Yeon Kang, a software engineer from Oakland, California, is familiar with this scenario. Kang, who graduated from Stanford University, says it was the App Academy – a coding school in San Francisco she enrolled in after graduation – that helped her land her current job. “I learned more real-world skills in 12 weeks than my Stanford degree taught me,” she says.
Like Fleming, Kang thinks it’s important to figure out what you want to do before deciding on a college path. “I would not have gone straight to an undergraduate education without being 100% sure of what I wanted my life’s work to be,” Kang says when asked if she would do things differently now. As for her own kids, she has much more pragmatic plans for their post-high school education. “I am primarily focused on what they want to become, and see if college is necessary to get there.”
A shifting of the “university for all” ideology towards trade schools and technical training is an idea that seems to be gathering steam. Heather Brown, the college counseling coordinator for the Los Angeles Unifed School District, is definitely on board. “The growing need for trade or industry education is actually overtaking traditional four-year degrees from large colleges,” she confirms.
“The idea that you’re going to graduate from high school, go to a four-year university, get a degree in sociology and that’s going to magically get you a career – this idea is statistically out-of-date,” Brown cautions. “That is not the reality of the data coming in from our current situation, economically and from our industries. The vast majority of need is actually in industrial certification.”
“When I sit down with parents one of the first things I like to do is define college,” she continues. “It’s usually this idea that college only means going off to a four-year university with general education classes and upper division classes. I’ve actually had students tell me, ‘I’m not going to go to college, I’m going to go to trade school to study auto mechanics.’ And I say, ‘That’s college!’”
“I challenge everyone to define college as any kind of post-high school higher education that will lead you to have expertise in something so that you can have a career,” she says.
I’m fully up to this challenge. And I have a feeling that mom – whose son is probably a highly paid, sought-after auto mechanic now – would be, too.
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