I admit it….I was guilty…guilty of being one on those voices, who for far too long tried to define the academic success of our children after high school by whether or not they attended a college or university. This thinking ignored the simple fact that while going to a four-year college is laudable, it is not always what is best for everyone.
The college path should not be the only definition of success, and there should never be a stigma associated with choosing vocational, technical training, or apprenticeship programs. This bias is destructive to our children’s future, and New Jersey’s future. We should allow them to have the opportunity to receive the education and training that their natural talents and preferences direct them towards. If not, we are sentencing them to jobs and a future that will have less meaning and are devoid of the passions that motivate them.
We have had overwhelming success at getting the message out that our kids should attend college. So much so that sometimes we’ve painted college as a panacea that it isn’t. Yes, there are many good reasons for attending college, but doing so isn’t a guarantee of success in life.
There finally appears to be a broader recognition that there are multiple pathways to a successful professional life. Certainly, the cost is one factor. In New Jersey, the average annual tuition and fees at a four-year college or university ranges from a little over $11,700 to $50,700. Many students end up leaving college with crippling student debt, limited job prospects, and sometimes no degree.
After decades of the “attend college” mantra, we are arriving at a different conclusion for some students and parents: There is an alternative educational path, which are vocational-technical schools. Employers – now more than ever - are looking for potential employees who can think critically, can perform specific skill-sets and are capable with their hands.
“The general idea that that there are no jobs out there for young people without a college education is clearly not true,” writes Keith Lambert, Education World associate contributing editor.
“Computer programmers make an average salary of $74,280,” according to Lambert. “Electricians pull a median pay of $51,880, up to $88,000. Network systems administrator? $77,810. Dental hygienist? Over $70,000. Why are we discouraging students from pursuing these fantastic employment opportunities? And here’s the thing: Not only do these jobs pay well, their demand is currently on the rise. Health care and social assistance, construction, computer support, veterinary technology and manufacturing are all looking at impressive increases in demand over the next few years.”
In fact, I recently witnessed students readying themselves – with real skills and real training - for many of these careers while touring the Burlington County Institute of Technology in Westampton. There I was overly impressed by the hands-on HVAC, plumbing, and carpentry programs; the highly technical engineering and drone-piloting program; the state-of-the-art graphic design, video, and music recording studios; the allied health professionals training labs; and the list goes on.
Yet, budgets dedicated to vocational technical training are a sticking point. “In 2012, funding for CTE [career technical education] dropped from $1.271 billion to $1.007 billion, and Trump’s budget cut proposals do not offer any more encouragement,” according to Lambert.
In New Jersey, we have begun to have a different view. We are seeing a rise in the number of students seeking the vocational education route. Unfortunately, we have a shortage of space and seats available. More than 30,000 applied to county vocational schools recently. This is a wonderful surprise and arguably a harbinger of future interest.
However, space constraints limited the acceptance rate to slightly more than 12,000 students. New Jersey lacks the infrastructure to cope with this newfound interest. It will take upwards of $900 million “in spending by vocational technical school districts to meet all construction, renovation and equipment needs across the state, but their primary source of funding is local property taxes, which are already at a record high,” according to NJ Spotlight.
One answer being discussed in Trenton is a proposed bond issue to raise $450 million for vocational and technical schools. The topic of education and money is sensitive. We constantly hear grumbles about how the educational system isn’t working, and yet, there is a steady stream of pleas for more funding. And, clearly the interest in vocational technical education is real.
Here is a rational way to look at this issue. No one wishes to deny any student in New Jersey the best possible education. All of us should concede that finding the correct educational choice can be challenging. What 18-year-old really knows what they want as a career? That also applies to parents, who are hopefully guiding their children.
But when 30,000-plus students clamor for entry into a specific educational program, it’s a clarion call that deserves our attention. These students demonstrated an interest, yet nearly two-thirds can’t follow their interest — and yes, dreams —because of space. Let’s turn it around. What would we do if two-thirds of students applying to college received rejection letters because they didn’t have enough space?
This bond issue and having the infrastructure and instructors available, is an investment in our youth…their economic future and that of New Jersey’s. Vocational education should be highly valued, funded adequately and effectively implemented. It’s time for our state and our nation as a whole to embrace this renaissance of vocational technical education. Our economic future depends on it. That’s my take, what’s yours?