Abigail Hess | CNBC.com
More Americans are going to college than ever before. The most recent census found that 33.4 percent of adults over the age of 24 have earned a bachelor’s degree or more. Kurt Bauman, Chief of the Education and Social Stratification Branch for the U.S. Census describes this as, “a significant milestone” for the country.
For many, however, higher education remains a privilege that is financially inaccessible. One way students can invest in their futures without investing in a bachelor’s degree is through vocational education. By enrolling in vocational education programs, students can earn degrees in high-demand fields like nursing, business and engineering which can lead to high-paying jobs. Still, many students believe that a bachelor’s degree is the only path to success.
In order to change this, the state of California is spending $200 million to encourage more students to earn a vocational certificate instead of a bachelor’s degree.
The U.S. Government defines vocational education as, “organized educational programs offering a sequence of courses which are directly related to the preparation of individuals in paid or unpaid employment in current or emerging occupations requiring other than a baccalaureate or advanced degree.”
These programs, offered by community colleges across the country, are by definition designed to help students find employment. Reports from the U.S. Department of Education indicate that people with vocational education have slightly higher rates of employment than those with academic credentials. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, there are over 30 million jobs that pay an average of $55,000 a year and do not require a bachelor’s degree. The healthcare industry alone is creating millions of high-paying jobs that don’t require students to study for four years.
Despite the benefits of vocational education, it has yet to appeal to American students on a broad scale. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 8 percent of undergraduates are enrolled in a vocational certificate program. Derrick Roberson, 17, tells PBS, “All throughout high school, they made it sound like going to college was our only option.” Today, Roberson is training to be an electrician.
In many regions, vocational programs have even declined in popularity. For instance, in 2000, 31 percent of community college students in California took vocational courses. Today, only 28 percent of students take these courses.
Experts believe that students hesitate to enter vocational training programs in part because of fears that industries like manufacturing will replace workers with robots. Business consultant Sam Geil told PBS, “It doesn’t help when industry is moving out and laying people off.”
Despite these fears, California is investing over $200 million in vocational education. Today, California Community Colleges is the largest provider of workforce training in the country. The state hopes to use the money to improve the reputation of vocational education and deliver it more effectively.
The New York Times points out that this kind of investment from the government helps corporations cut costs: “They want schools and, by extension, the government to take on more of the costs of training workers that used to be covered by companies as part of on-the-job employee development.” In other countries like Germany, companies are heavily involved in training workers.
Still, Andrew Hanson, a senior research analyst with Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce told Matt Krupnick, “Efforts like California’s to broaden the appeal are exactly what we need.”