Education Opinion

Get Real About Vocational Education

By Walt Gardner — September 30, 2016 2 min read
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For far too long, vocational education in this country has been regarded as inferior to an academic curriculum. In large part that’s because those with four-year degrees tend to earn more over a lifetime. I say it’s time to take a closer look at the issue by taking into account Germany’s experience (“U.S. Companies Turn to German Training Model to Fill Jobs Gap,” The Wall Street Journal, Sep. 27).

I think Germany is more realistic than the U.S. Roughly half of high school graduates there choose apprenticeships rather than college degrees. Students who do so spend three or four days a week training at a company and one or two days a week at a public vocational school. The company pays wages and tuition. After three years gaining experience, they take exams to receive nationally recognized certificates in their field. Germans with vocational apprenticeships earn about two-thirds of what those with at least a bachelor’s degree do.

In contrast, the U.S. is obsessed with college for everyone. It’s total madness. Not all students have the ability to do college-level work, and if they do, they typically major in fields that prepare them for nothing after graduation. If that’s not enough of a reality check, they are saddled with debt that is not dischargeable. If they had completed apprenticeships, they would earn $50,000 annually on average, which is higher than the median annual wage of $44,720, according to the Labor Department.

More important, these graduates would derive great satisfaction working with their hands in ways that are inconceivable to academic graduates. I’ve written often before in this column about former students who never went to college but have been steadily employed at well paying jobs since graduating high school. Some work for companies, while others are self-employed. With two million manufacturing jobs expected to be vacant over the next decade because of a shortage of trained workers, the prospects are bright.

I agree that college is supposed to be more than job training. But try telling that to new degree holders with heavy student debt and no marketable skills. Let’s not forget that data about the premium attached to a bachelor’s degree are based on past decades when conditions were entirely different. Moreover, the data do not differentiate between high school graduates with apprenticeships and those without. That’s why I was heartened to learn that the House of Representatives in September overwhelmingly reauthorized the Perkins Act. I hope it is the beginning of new respect for career and technical education.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.