College & Workforce Readiness

Making Sense of the Complex World of Career-Training Programs

By Catherine Gewertz — September 08, 2015 2 min read
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For many of us, making sense of the postsecondary space between high school and a community college degree can be daunting. What’s the difference between a certification and a certificate, for instance?

Helping students navigate their way from a diploma to further training or education can get complicated very quickly. Most school counselors don’t have deep training in college advising, and most have even less training in how to help students figure out career-training choices. Beyond the world of two- and four-year college options, however, lies a wide array of choices that can produce licenses, certificates, or certifications. Many of those pathways can open doors to jobs that pay well.

But sorting out the vocabulary and the options can be confusing; check out this explanation for aspiring paralegals.

A new two-page brief by the Association for Career and Technical Education offers a quick way to think about some of the distinctions in that space between a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree.

According to the brief, a certification is awarded by a business or a trade association after successful completion of an assessment that measures mastery of a specific set of standards. This is the kind of pathway that an aspiring welder would pursue, for instance. A certificate, on the other hand, is bestowed after completion of a course of study that’s usually two or fewer years. The food industry’s certified food handlers would pursue this kind of pathway.

The multiple channels in the career-training world haven’t been as much a focus of high school guidance counseling as have the two- and four-year options. It’s a complicated and varied world, as the “career clusters” idea makes clear.

But it also has a fraught history; vocational education was long used to sort students by perceived academic potential, funneling those who seemed “promising” into college and those who didn’t distinguish themselves academically into job-training programs. If you’ve been around awhile, you don’t need me to tell you that predictable race and class patterns took shape in that sorting process.

Now, years later, as we try to remake “voc ed” into “career and technical education” with academic study rigorous enough to prepare students for college options, there is a renewed need to help students understand the pathways open to them, each with its accompanying course of study, its job prospects, and its piece of paper (credential, certificate, license, degree).

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.