Beyond home ec: vocational programs are a good investment

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The Occupy Wall Street protests have reintroduced a recurring character in our national economic drama: the struggling young college graduate. Every time the economy goes south, we hear from the Harvard-educated bartender, the taxi driver with a master's degree in art history, or the philosophy major who's moved back in with his parents, shipping out résumé after fruitless résumé. As Ezra Klein recounts in the Washington Post, many of the Occupy Wall Street protesters cite their college loans as a source of their grievances: "College debt represents a special sort of betrayal. We told you that the way to get ahead in America was to get educated. You did it. And now you find yourself in the same place, but buried under debt. You were lied to."

Lost in this rhetoric is any suggestion that it is the education system--the schools that charged all that money and then provided little by way of marketable skills in return--that let these young people down. There's plenty of criticism for corporations that aren't hiring and banks that are calling to collect their loans, but don't the institutions that failed to prepare students for the world of work deserve part of the blame? Some of these talented people would no doubt have been better served by an education more directly tied to the jobs they so desperately need.

Four-year colleges and universities are reluctant to see the education they provide as "occupational." High schools are often rated according to how many of their students go off to a four-year college, not how many find success in the labor market out of high school or move on to an occupational program at a community college. Overlaying all of this is an intense sensitivity to charges that disadvantaged students are being pushed onto educational pathways that do not lead to a bachelor's degree.

But employment projections suggest that prioritizing only bachelor's-degree production is a mistake. The Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce projects that U.S. employers will have 47 million job openings between 2010 and 2018, 30 million of which will require some post-secondary education. Fourteen million of these positions will require an associate's degree or a vocational certificate rather than a bachelor's degree--the so-called middle-skill jobs such as electrician, health-care aide, and construction manager. Based on these projections, the Georgetown researchers estimate that by 2025, the U.S. will require 4 million additional occupational certificates and 1 million more associate's degrees to meet employer demand.

Surveys of employers routinely uncover a mismatch between what they need from their employees and what prospective hires of all educational backgrounds bring to the table. A 2006 survey of employers by the Conference Board found that 42 percent of respondents considered the overall preparation of recent high-school graduates for entry-level jobs "deficient." A similar survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities reported that 63 percent of employers believe recent college graduates lack the skills necessary for success in the global economy.

For their part, students wish that their high-school and college courses were more closely tied to the world of work. The 2009 High School Survey of Student Engagement revealed that 40 percent of high-school students were bored in school because the curriculum was not relevant to the real world. Just 26 percent thought that high school provided skills necessary for work after graduation.

"[CTE programs] teach practical, marketable skills and are tightly linked to employer demand in high-growth industries." -- Andrew P. Kelly

All signs suggest it's time to rethink our approach to vocational education, now called "career and technical education" or CTE, and make it a central piece of our economic recovery.

The federal government has been funding vocational-education programs since World War I, almost 50 years before the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 got the feds involved in the remainder of pre-college education. Policymakers sought to keep vocational education separate from traditional academics by placing restrictions on which courses and teachers were eligible to receive federal dollars: Teachers of academic disciplines were not eligible to receive federal funds, and there were limits on the number of academic credits that vocational students could take.

Though originally designed to prevent schools from using federal funds for non-vocational training, this firewall between the vocational and the academic ensured that CTE would be marginalized for much of the following century. Recent spending reflects this marginalization; in 2008, for every dollar that the feds spent on elementary and secondary education, vocational-education programs got about one cent. That same year, the states spent an average of less than $20 per student on vocational education, compared with $94 per student on transportation and $340 per student on special education.

Earlier this year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan tersely summed up the place of vocational education in the country's educational hierarchy: "For far too long, CTE has been the neglected stepchild of education reform. That neglect has to stop." But President Obama's 2012 budget promises more of the same, recommending a 20 percent cut to federal CTE programs at the same time that it calls for increasing overall education spending by 11 percent.

Policymakers should instead learn from an array of career-education programs that have sprouted up in high schools, technical colleges, and for-profit institutions around the country. These programs bear little resemblance to the home-ec and woodshop classes of yesteryear. Most are focused on preparing students for such growing industries as health care, information technology, and engineering. Most important, they are closely linked to local employers.

At the high-school level, school districts have experimented with "career academies" for 30 years, often to great effect. Career academies are schools-within-schools; students apply to an industry-focused academy, and their coursework is tailored to teach the skills and knowledge needed to be successful in the industry. The academies also partner with local employers to provide students with on-the-job experience. An eight-year evaluation of nine urban career academies found that academy graduates out-earned non-academy students by more than $2,000 per year (or $16,700 over the eight-year period), and that the advantage was particularly pronounced among young men, who earned an average of $3,700 more per year than their peers.

For post-secondary students, evidence is mounting that the payoff for occupational-certificate programs of at least one year can be quite large--often outweighing the benefits of an associate or bachelor's degree. Nationally, the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce estimates that 43 percent of workers with occupational certificates and licenses out-earned associate-degree holders, and 27 percent had higher earnings than bachelor's-degree recipients.

Evidence from Florida reveals a similar pattern: Graduates with a post-secondary certificate from a Florida community college earned $2,500 more per year than bachelor's-degree recipients from the state's four-year colleges. Certificates in health care, nursing, and information technology tend to post the strongest returns, and almost 45 percent of the certificates awarded in 2007-08 were in health care and related fields.

These certificate programs also make more efficient use of public dollars. Completion rates for certificate programs are often quite high--typically between 65 and 75 percent of students finish and attain the credential--which helps keep their cost per completion lower than that of degree programs with higher rates of attrition. The contrast is evident in Tennessee, where 27 state-run technology centers that award occupational certificates have had an average completion rate of about 70 percent over the last five years. At the state's 13 community colleges, completion rates hover around 15 to 20 percent. An analysis by Complete College America found that the state paid about $7,500 per completion at the tech centers in 2008, compared with just over $26,000 per degree at the community colleges. And it's not that the tech centers are just churning graduates through low-quality programs: The job-placement rate for tech-center graduates (83 percent) is comparable to the rate for Tennessee's community-college graduates (91 percent).

The point is not that every student should follow a career-academy or tech-center model. Every approach has its limits, and traditional associate or bachelor's programs will continue to be right for many students. But it should not be a surprise that innovative CTE programs have proven successful. They teach practical, marketable skills and are tightly linked to employer demand in high-growth industries. Many of them feature a heavy dose of on-the-job training and apprenticeships that introduce students to local employers and provide them with the personal relationships that often underlie the labor market.

The recession has pinned education policy in a tough spot: Our schools must both produce more skilled workers and do so as efficiently as possible. Innovative models of career and technical education could go a long way toward threading this needle. With some initiative and imagination, policymakers and leaders in the private sector can transform CTE from an educational backwater into an engine of our economic recovery.

Andrew Kelly is a research fellow at AEI

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