Our view: The value of vocational education

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The Steamboat Springs School District is a high-achieving district with strong standardized test scores and accountability ratings. A majority of the district's graduates, about 75 percent, go on to further their educations after high school.

That number compares favorably with national statistics that show 63 percent of high school graduates go to college immediately after high school and that 75 percent attend some form of postsecondary education within two years of high school graduation.

But if three out of four Steamboat students are furthering their formal education after graduation, one in four have chosen a different, less traditional path in what may be an effort to enter the job market earlier than their college-bound peers. What kind of education or training is available to these graduates?

Not the appropriate kind, Steamboat Superintendent Donna Howell said. "What came forward consistently (in community focus forums conducted last year) was that we have a significant population not going to college, and we're not meeting their needs," Howell said.

We would agree with Howell's assessment that a stronger emphasis on vocational education curriculum -- without de-emphasizing core subjects -- is needed. But that will require a shift in community thinking about what vocational education is and the value it has. Unfortunately, in our college education-rich culture, "vocation" has become a dirty word. Many parents may see college as the only path to success for their children, and they're not alone.

The trend in education during the past half century has been to increasingly emphasize the importance of a four-year college degree. There is an underlying message that everyone can and should go to college after high school. Too many parents have bought into the notion that a college degree is the only path to success for their children.

But the makeup of our own work force demonstrates that simply isn't always the case. The largest segments of our work force -- the service and retail sectors -- also are near the bottom in terms of wages. Countless workers have found that these sectors offer their only opportunity for employment upon graduation from college. By contrast, skilled labor jobs in the construction industry such as electricians, carpenters and plumbers do not require degrees but pay $10,000 to $15,000 more per year on average.

How many students who might have been better off training to become licensed plumbers or electricians have instead been steered toward college?

Steamboat Springs High School's careers program has helped give many students hands-on work-force training. And the school has industrial technology, computer maintenance and other programs. But more can and should be done.

As always, funding is the big challenge. The district faces significant financial hurdles without trying to revamp its vocational education program. And convincing parents that the right thing to do is shift financial resources away from some college-prep programs and into vocational programs won't be easy.

But there are ways to reduce the financial burden or at least spread it around. One example is partnering with businesses such as TIC, which has offered its training curriculum to assist students with an interest in construction-related fields. Also, the school district and Colorado Mountain College (which has it's own workforce training coordinator and a transfer agreement with Pickens Tech, a front-range vocational school) should collaborate on developing vocational training programs beyond the high school level, tailored to meet the needs of the area work force and local economy.

In an economy where economic development depends upon the ability to provide potential new industries with skilled workers, it isn't hard to see the return on a greater investment in vocational education and training. The school district is right to be concerned about potential gaps in this area and to take steps to fill those gaps.

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