Vocational education won’t succeed so long as society consigns it to second-class status.
‘Nobody knows what a community college is,” President Trump said last month in Michigan. “We’re going to start using—and we had this—vocational schools.” Conflating community colleges with vocational schools is a mistake, though an understandable one. Everyone talks about better vocational programs for students who will not complete college, but prescriptions invariably focus on options for after high-school graduation.
Waiting until students are college age is too late. Elevating vocational education, and prioritizing its students, must begin with a substantial reshaping of American high schools. Vocational education will not succeed so long as culture and public policy consign it to second-class status—a dumping ground for students who interfere with what school districts consider their real mission, college prep.
But that mission ends in failure for most American students. Only 46% of Americans 25 to 29 have attained even an associate degree. Why do we design our high schools for college completers, if fewer than half of students complete college?
The problem is that schools refuse to track—to separate high-school students into different educational programs that target different outcomes. The impulse is an egalitarian one, but the insistence on treating everyone equally in high school harms students for whom the college track is not appropriate. It deprives them of schooling that could be more valuable and abandons them after graduation ill-prepared for work.
Would a noncollege track prevent some students from achieving their full academic potential? Perhaps. But the risk pales in comparison to the problem of today, when everyone is placed on a track that we know is wrong for most. A well-designed tracking system could mitigate that risk by leaving the choice to students and parents, by providing offramps from one track to the other, and by ensuring that the noncollege track is not undesirable to begin with.
How could a noncollege track be made more attractive? For starters, it could receive comparable resources. Schools lavish tens of thousands of public dollars on students who pursue college, while others, trying to find their own footing in life after leaving high school, get nothing at all. The Trump administration’s proposal to let students use Pell Grants for different forms of postsecondary training is a good start. But students on a vocational track shouldn’t have to wait until after high school for such resources.
A strong noncollege track would also allow employers to play a much larger role. School hours can be working hours—what Mr. Trump has called “earn as you learn.” But vocational students need access to this in high school if that is when their career preparation should begin.
Imagine if traditional high-school academics were compressed. Part of 11th grade would emphasize career selection and readiness, and 12th grade would mark the start of a subsidized internship or apprenticeship. Such a student could have significant work experience, certified skills, and $40,000 in the bank—before being old enough to drink. And that’s for the same cost as what Americans spend on the typical debt-laden college dropout.
With financial viability would also come cultural acceptance. The choice would come to seem normal; employers would know what to expect. Across the other developed economies of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, between 40% and 70% of secondary-school students pursue a vocational track. In Germany, business leaders often begin their careers in apprenticeships.
The current system is not really trackless; it offers a single track, tailored toward those most likely to succeed anyway. If there is to be only one track, why not switch the default? Design the local high school for the needs of the median student, who won’t complete even community college. Those aiming for college could enroll in an after-school enrichment program three towns over.
If that’s how “no tracking” looked, many of tracking’s opponents would probably come around.
This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal