The majority of high school graduates in America do not go to college, at least not directly. But wait—in all of the high schools where I’ve worked, half of the students who enroll never graduate, and that’s reflective of a longstanding national trend. So where are all those young people going?
The vocational career pathway has always been treated as low status in our antiquated educational hierarchy. In reality, this is just academic snobbery; the vocational careers have been some of the most lucrative and bountiful entryways to the middle class in America for a long time. For example, while almost 50 percent of four-year college graduates are unemployed, 60 percent of all nursing graduates in the U.S. come from the nation’s community colleges. Add to them the dental hygienists, plumbers, electricians, heating and air conditioning technicians, auto mechanics, chefs, office workers, medical-equipment operators and technicians, cosmetologists, barbers, truck drivers, and machine handlers, just to name a few of the people on whom we rely daily, and we realize it’s the traditional college route that should be called alternative.
Many of the traditional “college bound” students I have worked with over the years ended up being less prepared for the workplace than their vocational-career peers. Consider how many students have graduated from four-year colleges with degrees that were, for all practical purposes, worthless in terms of the job market. What promises (and overpriced loans) were they sold as they matriculated through those majors? Consider that we are graduating too many elementary teachers (and for the wrong reasons) rather than advising career seekers to go into the fields and geographic regions where they are actually needed.
The ugly truth: Much of our current educational system is more about maintaining social stratification than helping individual students reach their full potential. I see a need for more merging of all the post-secondary options rather than maintaining rigid, predetermined pathways. I support more blending of options, instead of needlessly pitting the vocational versus the academic. For instance, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and others are tackling our senseless devotion to making all college-bound students, regardless of their majors, master algebra, arguing for the option to take statistics or probability. Changes like these make even more sense given that our children and grandchildren are likely to have multiple careers rather than choosing one field for a lifetime. Education can no longer be something a person “does” once formally before entering the “real world.”
As I see it, continuing education, re-training, and lifelong learning are the new reality.
All our children should be encouraged to do more real learning, and all types of learning should be available to whomever is interested.
Renee Moore, a National Board-certified teacher, has taught English and journalism for 20 years in the Mississippi Delta region at both the high school and community college levels.