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.