Let’s quit brainwashing kids that it’s a college degree or nothing

Too many young people are sold a bill of goods that the only road to success is a college education, writes David McGrath. In fact, vocational education — such as auto mechanics — can lead to good-paying jobs. (AP Photo/Jim McKnight)

I had no inkling there was a problem.

The students in my college English class were working in the computer lab, where each station has a wraparound console which affords pupils the privacy they need to concentrate on their writing. But this also means I can’t see everyone at a glance, the way I do in a regular classroom.

So not till I walked to the middle of the room, and then to the very end of a row of stations, did I see the student I’ll call William with his head buried in his hands.

“Are you feeling okay?” I whispered.

No answer. He was shaking.


Having been a teacher for over three decades, I’ve encountered students in distress. Once I had to make a referral for domestic abuse. Another time, I had to drop a student after he kept arriving inebriated.

William, it appeared, was in some kind of pain.

“Would you like me to call the school nurse?” I asked.

In the past decade, I’ve dealt with immaturity issues with students as young as 16 because of dual enrollment, a program which allows high schoolers to sign up for college classes to get a head start and save on tuition. But William looked to be about 19, average for a college freshman.

Finally, when I insisted he speak to me so that I would know how to help him, he reluctantly lifted his head.

“I can’t do this,” he said. No tears, but his eyes were red, his face a coil of hurt. “Too much pressure.”

Further questioning, and I learned that his anxiety made today’s lab assignment impossible. Nor had he been able to complete last week’s homework.

Exacerbating everything else was the D he received on a paper I had given him back at the start of class, leading him to fear that he was going to fail and become a “huge disappointment” to his family.

I tried cheering him up by explaining that it was early in the term when many of his classmates also  get low grades, which was why the class was required  in the first place: to learn and improve. It was  feasible, I assured him, that he could still end up with a good grade by semester’s end.

It’s a speech I’d given before. But William would have none of it. He was feeling too terrible in the here and now, he said. Not only that, he never even wanted to go to college. There had been all these expectations: it was either college or nothing.

Back when I began teaching, I seldom saw the students who were uninterested in the academic journey for a four-year degree. For they were the ones who had acquired internships, started apprenticeships, or took  jobs in industry and manufacturing, as the culmination of vocational education programs in high school.

But these days I’m seeing more students with William’s dilemma, who are funneled to my classroom for lack of better options.

They are told by their high school counselors that they will not get a decent job without a college degree. And  that high school qualifies them only for a low-wage job in the fast food industry.

Parents have been even more sensitive to the counselors’ warnings. So even when students found they enjoyed working in the building trades, or had a knack, say, for auto repair, their parents saw vocational education as a dumping ground for below average children: Not my child!

Consequently, a report by National Assessment of Vocational Education has shown a steady decline of enrollment in vocational education with corresponding cuts in federal funding in the last 11 years.

In Chicago schools, vocational classes have been severely reduced, and schools and programs entirely dismantled over the past two decades. This is  bad news for students like William, and bad news for the city as it competes for Amazon’s new headquarters, which comes with 50,000 jobs, many requiring not college degrees, but vocational education.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 68 percent of high school graduates go to college. This means that absent vocational training,  32 percent of our young people are unqualified for a job with which they can lift themselves out of poverty.

Of those who do go to college, 40 percent never finish, including William, who dropped before the end of the semester.

How to solve this problem?

We need to debunk the inference made by parents that vocational and technical jobs are inferior. Such a notion has led many of them to steer youngsters unwilling or unsuited for academic study into frustration, failure and depression.

A campaign of public relations, parental education and cash is needed to combat the stigma.

Yes, cash incentives in the form of higher salaries for auto mechanics, veterinary technicians, medical assistants, insurance agents, MRI technologists, physical therapist aides, railroad equipment operators, choreographers and the multitude of other occupations that do not require college, but that need to be filled in this country.

Cash such as the $44,000 starting salary for thousands of construction workers that will be hired to build Amazon’s new headquarters, who will require training either on the job, or in the kinds of vocational education programs we need to resurrect.

David McGrath is emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage and author of THE TERRITORY.

After decades of pushing bachelor’s degrees, U.S. needs more tradespeople

Welding student in after school program, Student Reporting Labs

Student Kalei Kipp in Cedar Crest High School’s welding program in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, during the 2016-2017 school year. Three percent of welders in the U.S. are women. Photo from PBS NewsHour’s Student Reporting Labs series “Outside the Box.”

FONTANA, Calif. — At a steel factory dwarfed by the adjacent Auto Club Speedway, Fernando Esparza is working toward his next promotion.

Esparza is a 46-year-old mechanic for Evolution Fresh, a subsidiary of Starbucks that makes juices and smoothies. He’s taking a class in industrial computing taught by a community college at a local manufacturing plant in the hope it will bump up his wages.

It’s a pretty safe bet. The skills being taught here are in high demand. That’s in part because so much effort has been put into encouraging high school graduates to go to college for academic degrees rather than for training in industrial and other trades that many fields like his face worker shortages.

Now California is spending $6 million on a campaign to revive the reputation of vocational education, and $200 million to improve the delivery of it.

Related: Twitter chat transcript: Are apprenticeships more lucrative than a college degree?

“It’s a cultural rebuild,” said Randy Emery, a welding instructor at the College of the Sequoias in California’s Central Valley.

Standing in a cavernous teaching lab full of industrial equipment on the college’s Tulare campus, Emery said the decades-long national push for high school graduates to get bachelor’s degrees left vocational programs with an image problem, and the nation’s factories with far fewer skilled workers than needed.

Related: Universities and colleges struggle to stem big drops in enrollment
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“I’m a survivor of that teardown mode of the ’70s and ’80s, that college-for-all thing,” he said.

This has had the unintended consequence of helping flatten out or steadily erode the share of students taking vocational courses. In California’s community colleges, for instance, it’s dropped to 28 percent from 31 percent since 2000, contributing to a shortage of trained workers with more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree.

Research by the state’s 114-campus community college system showed that families and employers alike didn’t know of the existence or value of vocational programs and the certifications they confer, many of which can add tens of thousands of dollars per year to a graduate’s income.

“We needed to do a better job getting the word out,” said Van Ton-Quinlivan, the system’s vice chancellor for workforce and economic development.

High schools and colleges have struggled for decades to attract students to job-oriented classes ranging from welding to nursing. They’ve tried cosmetic changes, such as rebranding “vocational” courses as “career and technical education,” but students and their families have yet to buy in, said Andrew Hanson, a senior research analyst with Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Federal figures show that only 8 percent of undergraduates are enrolled in certificate programs, which tend to be vocationally oriented.

Related: Universities and colleges struggle to stem big drops in enrollment

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., last year focused attention on the vocational vs. academic debate by contending during his presidential campaign that “welders make more money than philosophers.”

The United States has 30 million jobs that pay an average of $55,000 per year and don’t require a bachelor’s degree, according to the Georgetown center. People with career and technical educations are actually slightly more likely to be employed than their counterparts with academic credentials, the U.S. Department of Education reports, and significantly more likely to be working in their fields of study.

At California Steel Industries, where Esparza was learning industrial computing, some supervisors without college degrees make as much as $120,000 per year and electricians also can make six figures, company officials said.

Skilled trades show among the highest potential among job categories, the economic-modeling company Emsi calculates. It says tradespeople also are older than workers in other fields — more than half were over 45 in 2012, the last period for which the subject was studied — meaning looming retirements could result in big shortages.

High schools and community colleges are the keys to filling industrial jobs, Hanson said, but something needs to change.

“You haven’t yet been able to attract students from middle-class and more affluent communities” to vocational programs, he said. “Efforts like California’s to broaden the appeal are exactly what we need.”

Aside from marketing the programs differently and making them simpler to find and apply for, California is trying to ease the process through which individual campuses can add new programs that could help local businesses. If a region needs respiratory therapists, for example, community colleges will be able to avoid some of the red tape that previously hampered their flexibility to train new therapists.

“We definitely wanted to get out of the colleges’ way,” Ton-Quinlivan said.

The industrial course in which Esparza is enrolled is run by nearby Chaffey College through the community college’s InTech Center, a partnership with California Steel and other local manufacturers. At its completion, Esparza will have new skills he hopes will translate into a promotion and a raise of $4 or $5 per hour.

Related: As graduates obsess about jobs, colleges cut spending on career services

Like his classmates, Esparza, who starts work at 6 a.m., is looking at the class as a moneymaker for him.

“It feels very comfortable for me,” he said. And then, like many Californians, he reflects on his commute. “I don’t even have to catch a freeway to get here. How can it get better?”

But it can get better in California, where 30 percent of all job openings by 2025 — more than a million jobs — will require some post-high school education, according to the state’s community college system. Some on the industry side of the equation say that while colleges should have spent the past few decades building tighter bonds with local companies, those companies share the blame for vocational education’s tattered reputation.

Residents who have watched manufacturing companies relocate overseas may have not wanted to encourage their children to learn manufacturing-related skills, said Sam Geil, a Fresno, California, business consultant and adviser to the San Joaquin Valley Manufacturing Alliance.

“It doesn’t help when industry is moving out and laying people off,” Geil said. “It’s the relationship that industry has with the community. Industry could do a better job communicating.”

As with a lot of education challenges, money is also a big problem.

READ MORE: Candidate’s comment reopens controversy over whether college is worth the cost

While a humanities class such as English costs a college just $52 per student credit, a respiratory therapy class costs $265, according to a 2013 report by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy. Equipment and trained instructors in some specialty fields can be prohibitively expensive for a college.

With state budgets in constant flux, colleges and experts say it’s essential that companies help pay for educational programs that directly benefit them. While that kind of cooperation has been rare, Chaffey College’s InTech Center is an example of how it could work.

California Steel chipped in $2 million for the education center, which it leases to Chaffey for $5 per year, said Sandra Sisco, the school’s director of economic development. Other local companies and colleges have invested, too. The center served about 1,300 students in the past year and plans to grow, she said.

The steel company agreed to work with Chaffey mostly because it was having trouble finding enough trained workers, said Rod Hoover, its human resources manager. And if California Steel’s competitors benefit from the classes on the factory campus, many of which provide skills useful in steelmaking, so be it.

“It was the right thing to do for our community,” Hoover said. “The selfish reason was because we needed craft workers and it was inconvenient to send them elsewhere.”

The InTech Center specializes in quick courses that help students like Esparza get ahead in their jobs, Sisco said.

“The reputation of the colleges being archaic and slow is still out there,” she said. As with many perceptions of vocational education, Sisco said, “That’s not necessarily true.”

Related: With number of student-parents up, availability of campus child care is down

Although a large percentage of InTech students are older than traditional-aged college students, Chaffey is trying to encourage younger ones to focus early on their career training.

The strategy worked with 17-year-old Derrick Roberson, who graduated in the spring from Montclair High School and is taking an industrial maintenance electrical and instrumentation InTech course as he trains to be an electrician.

Vocational courses in high school were seen as second-class, Roberson said.

“All throughout high school, they made it sound like going to college was our only option,” he said. “After you go to college, where do you go? It can open doors for you, but not as much as they make it seem.”

Career education boosters also say job-focused courses — and accompanying apprenticeships — can provide students with essential “soft skills” such as communication and conflict resolution that foster teamwork and reduce stress. And schools should consider blending traditional college courses with vocational ones, said Sean Gallagher, who recently founded Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy.

“It’s often either vocational training or liberal arts,” Gallagher said. “But if you look at what employers want, it’s both, and I think that’s often lost in the dialogue today.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our higher-education newsletter.


PEIA Task Force appointed

By in News

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A mix of business, industry, education, labor and legislative leaders make up the 23-member PEIA Task Force named by Gov. Jim Justice Thursday.

The creation of the task force to work on a permanent fix for the health insurance plan for state workers operated by the Public Employees Insurance Agency was one of the moves that helped stop the nine-day state education workers strike that ended earlier this week.

The members include Brickstreet Insurance CEO Greg Burton, state Senate President Mitch Carmichael, West Virginia American Federation of Teachers President Christine Campbell and West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee.

The task force was created by Justice’s executive order entered last week. It will meet for the first time next Tuesday at 2 p.m. at the state capitol and will be chaired by Justice administration Chief of Staff Mike Hall.

Hall told MetroNews earlier the “fix” may include designating a certain amount of general revenue money off the top to PEIA each year like the legislature did with the workers’ compensation debt a few years ago.

“It may be in the range of 20, 30, 40 million (dollars) every year that you would have to say that off the top this goes to PEIA and it maintains the benefit levels that this group (PEIA Task Force) would determine would be a fix,” Hall said.

The members of the task force include:

Marty Becker, Chairman of the Board of Directors, QBE Insurance Group

Greg Burton, CEO Brickstreet Insurance

Andy Paterno, CEO Centurion Insurance Services

Joe Letnaunchyn, President & CEO, West Virginia Hospital Association

Rob Alsop, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, West Virginia University

Nelson Spencer, McDowell County Schools Superintendent

Perry Bryant, founder, West Virginians for Affordable Healthcare

Senator Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson)

Senator Robert Plymale (D-Wayne)

Senator Craig Blair (R-Berkeley)

Delegate Eric Nelson (R-Kanawha)

Delegate Roger Hanshaw (R-Clay)

Delegate Mick Bates (D-Raleigh)

Geoff Christian, current member PEIA Board

Christine Campbell, President, American Federation of Teachers West Virginia

Dale Lee, President, West Virginia Education Association

James “Joe” White, Executive Director, West Virginia School Service Personnel Association

Dr. Rahul Gupta, Commissioner of Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau for Public Health and State Health Officer

Douglas Kirk, Division of Highways

Lieutenant Michael LaFauci, West Virginia State Police

The Honorable Jeffrey Reed, Retired Wood County Circuit Court Judge

Judy Hale, Retired Public Educator

WV student teachers say pay raise passage will benefit them, help with recruitment

Carrie Hodousek/WVMetroNews.com County school systems reps were at West Virginia State University to conduct interviews with students during a job fair Thursday. 

By in News

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — College students entering the teaching profession in West Virginia say the result of the recent teacher strike will benefit them.

“I think it affects the teachers going into education more than the ones that are retiring,” said Skyler Tomblin, a senior at West Virginia State University, during a job fair at the school Thursday.

Governor Jim Justice signed a five percent pay raise bill Tuesday for all teachers and state employees, ending a nine-day work stoppage. Educators protested at the state Capitol each day to demand better pay and a permanent funding fix to the Public Employees Health Insurance Agency.

Tomblin said she hopes a PEIA fix comes sooner rather than later because, eventually, she will need to be on her own insurance plan.

“I’m on my parents’ insurance until I’m 26, so that part doesn’t affect me, but it will,” she said.

Daniel Thomas, another senior at WVSU, said the strike didn’t concern him.

“However it turned out, I was still going to become a teacher. It didn’t affect me much. It affected in a good way. We get a raise and hopefully they’ll work on PEIA, but wouldn’t have mattered either way,” Thomas said.

Several West Virginia county schools systems were at Thursday’s job fair to conduct interviews with students.

Kim Olsen with Kanawha County Schools said she informed student interviewees about the pay hike. She said she hopes that will attract more teachers to her county.

“I think recruiting will be better because we’ll be able to show that we’re more competitive with salaries,” Olsen said.

West Virginia still faces some challenges following the recent strike, according to Jim Holland, principal at Musselman Middle School in Berkeley County.

“It’s a mixed bag. I think people are nervous about sticking in West Virginia, but the thing is it proves that teachers will stand up for themselves and will stand up for education. That’s the thing I’ve been so pleased to see,” Holland said.

Elizabeth Thompson with Logan County Schools agreed and said she believes there’s a new admiration for teachers and school service workers.

“I think it elevated the respect level for teachers and the pay increase was definitely needed, so hopefully we’ll get more people interested in coming to West Virginia schools.”