In a time of financial uncertainty, it seems illogical to cut funding for technical and vocational schools, which teach students concrete, practical skills. But that’s precisely what the Obama administration aims to do, according to a recent article in the New York Times. In an effort to channel more money toward improving students’ mastery of broad subjects math, reading and history, the administration has proposed a 20 percent reduction in funding for career and technical funding, even as it seeks to raise the amount of funding devoted to education overall. This, according to White House officials, will help students better prepare for four-year colleges, and keep minority and low-income students from being automatically funneled into vocational training.
The question, though, is whether a four-year college is for everyone. Some worry that slashing funding for vocational classes will do a disservice to students for whom learning a professional skill would be valuable. A Seattle Times article from early last month pointed out that many vocational programs have long waiting lists, indicating that the programs are popular, at least in Seattle. But with the cuts, tuition increases and program shrinkage may make it impossible for some students to pursue the education they want.
Last year, fewer than a third of Americans aged 25-29 had earned a bachelor’s degree. While this can be interpreted to mean that public schools need to better prepare students to apply for college, it could also indicate that for some students, a four-year college won’t prepare them for what they want to do in life. Especially with mounting student debt and a bad job market, having affordable options for vocational and technical schools could make all the difference for people who might simply decide not to continue their education after high school, assuming that they graduate.
Part of the funding cuts may spring from what Liz Dwyer calls the United States’ “snobbery” about vocational schools. Using Brazil, which is investing heavily in vocational education, as a comparison, she points out that although more and more jobs require a college education, that doesn’t necessarily mean a four-year degree. Instead, we need to rethink the way we approach vocational training, and perhaps, like Brazil, rename it “professional training” – because, after all, that’s what it is.
The Obama administration and Dwyer are reacting to a similar phenomenon: that, in Dwyer’s words, “our society tends to put kids on either a college or career (code word for vocational) track and that tends to break down according to class status.” But where Dwyer points to Brazil, where students training to be plumbers go to school alongside students training to be math teachers, the Obama administration is simply cutting funds for the vocational (or “professional”) programs. And in fact, this perspective could be holding us back.
“I think there is a stigma in society that says if you don’t get a four-year degree you have not achieved,” Matthew Edwards, manager of human resources at Machine Specialties in Whitsett, N.C., told the New York Times. “And I don’t think that is true. There are not enough technical people in the workforce for us to grow.” Edwards is desperate to hire new machinists, but they’re just not available.
People learn in different ways, and they grow to love different skills. What our educational system needs to do is adapt to make sure that every student has access to all the possibilities, so that they can pursue a career that they would enjoy. Perhaps the Obama administration should think carefully about how vocational programs can be most valuable for students, instead of slashing the programs’ funding.
Photo from isafmedia via flickr.