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Scholarships for Voc.-Ed. Training Go Untapped

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Vocational education appears to have an image problem that even millions of dollars cannot solve.

Scholarship money for postsecondary technical training is languishing unused, vocational-education experts say, because high school students are not made aware of all of their options.

In Florida, where nearly a million dollars in scholarship money for technical and vocational schools went untapped last year, postsecondary school officials point to image problems. A lingering perception among Florida educators that vocational education is not a valid alternative to traditional academic programs may be a major reason why scholarship money is going unused, officials there say.

And despite a renewed national emphasis on smoothing the transition between school and work, technical training and other vocational programs have yet to achieve a status equivalent to that of academic college programs in many officials' eyes.

The Florida Association of Postsecondary Schools and Colleges, which represents more than 150 private institutions in the state, estimates that more than $1.7 million worth of scholarship state and private money is available for students seeking technical training after high school graduation.

The money, association officials estimate, would pay for more than 160 students statewide to obtain postsecondary training in a variety of fields.

But officials say that this year, as was the case in years past, much of the money may go unclaimed, in part because high school guidance counselors tend to encourage students to apply to academically oriented schools.

In 1994, the latest year for which data is available, 48 percent of Florida's high school graduates went on to some form of postsecondary education, according to the state education department.

But it is unclear from the data how many enrolled in strictly academic programs.

Joyce Breasure, the president of the 60,000-member, Alexandria Va.-based American Counseling Association, said it is difficult without knowing the circumstances that pertain in Florida to know why students aren't finding out about scholarship funds.

She noted that scholarships often are not well-advertised. But, she added, "Counselors are very, very supportive and committed to postsecondary education of all kinds. It's not that we're pushing college, more than we're pushing anything else."

In 1995, for example, roughly 61 percent of Florida's technical and vocational scholarship funds, or $972,000, went unused because so few students applied for the aid.

And although other states have yet to report similarly large amounts of unclaimed scholarships, vocational-education experts say it is unlikely that the problem is confined to one state.

"If that's the case in Florida, I would imagine that there is a good amount of money available in other states that is going unused," said Bret Lovejoy, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based American Vocational Association.

Growing Need

Officials in Florida contend that students simply are not often made aware of their options for study after high school graduation. But, they say, other factors may well discourage students from applying for technical school scholarship money, including students' desire to enroll in academic programs.

"The only reason we are not granting 100 percent of the money is that we are not getting the applicants," said Delores McMullen, the administrative consultant for the Florida postsecondary group.

She said that though the problem is not new, it is more worrisome now because current and projected employment trends both locally and nationally show a growing need for technical training.

A Higher Profile

But, whatever else may help to account for the lack of scholarship applicants in Florida, there is widely held belief that technical training is inferior to academic programs, said Carolyn Maddy-Bernstein, the director of student services at National Center for Research in Vocational Education at the University of California at Berkeley.

Mr. Lovejoy noted that the AVA has decided to become more active in making guidance counselors aware of the alternatives to traditional postsecondary education that are available to students.

But, Ms. Maddy-Bernstein added, postsecondary vocational schools need to give their programs a higher profile in order to attract good students.

"There's a perception that all vocational training is just available at the high school level," she said. "There's just a huge market out there in vocational programs that maybe the counselors aren't aware of."

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