Business leaders and American citizens view the importance of a college degree very differently. Approximately 70 percent of Americans believe that having a bachelor’s degree remains essential for getting a good job. Unfortunately, business leaders are not so optimistic: only 33 percent believe that U.S. colleges provide graduating students with the skills their businesses need. Considering the average college graduate amasses over $25,000 in debt and the unemployment rate for graduates stays consistently over 10 percent (compared to the national six percent), it is time to reevaluate the worth of a college degree.
To clarify, it is a very good thing that Americans value education so highly, and individuals with college degrees are a vital part of a strong economy. Nevertheless, a bachelor’s degree is not the only way to gain valuable skills and education. Vocational education proves a good alternative to a four-year degree as it generally provides individuals with timely and affordable skill acquisition.
While companies struggle to find qualified individuals, college graduates struggle to find employment. A recent survey estimates approximately 30 percent of U.S. companies have positions that remain unfilled for at least six months due to a lack of qualified applicants. An apparent discrepancy exists between the skills students are acquiring and the skills businesses need.
Many of the jobs in high demand are various types of vocational employment. These jobs are generally skills-based, such as dental assistants, lab technicians, air traffic controllers, welders and mechanics. Many vocational jobs require only one to two years of training (typically at a community or junior college) and pay competitive salaries. Generally the training is less expensive than obtaining a four-year degree and provides individuals with specialized skills currently in high demand. For instance, according to the U.S. Bureau Labor of Statistics, air traffic controllers typically need only an associate degree and have an annual median income greater than $120,000.
Unfortunately, the demand for vocational training is greater than the supply. In 2013 the New Jersey Council of Vocational-Technical Schools turned away over 15,000 students from vocational schools in New Jersey due to lack of capacity. Although the United States has passed a number of policies supporting vocational education, it remains unable to meet the demand of students and businesses. Fortunately the private sector is starting to fill the gap.
Corporations are becoming increasingly aware of the value of a vocational education. In order to better provide students with marketable skills, IBM partnered with the New York City Department of Education and City University of New York to create a revolutionary new high school. Opened in 2011, the Pathways in Technology Early College High School is a six year high school where students graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate degree. IBM’s direct involvement helps the school tailor its curriculum to industry needs. Students graduate with the necessary skills and connections to begin entry-level jobs at IBM or other corporations—all without paying a dime of tuition. There are currently efforts to expand this model to additional schools in New York.
Although a college-educated workforce is still necessary for long-term economic growth, it is time to encourage more students to pursue a more affordable vocational education in lieu of a four-year university degree. Collaboration between business and vocational educators will be key in providing students with marketable skills and employment opportunities. As student debt climbs over the one trillion dollar mark, an emphasis on vocational education could not be timelier. With a lot of hard work and careful planning, many Americans will be able to acquire a valuable education while avoiding the ever-increasing costs of higher education.