We Need To End Trade School Stigma

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

During one of the classes I taught at the University of South Carolina, I had a great student we’ll call Tim. Tim aced my first year English class. He was fun and funny, a good writer and a smart kid.

Several years later, I learned that Tim had decided to ditch his university education — which he had finished, by the way — and go to trade school. Today, Tim’s the best plumber I’ve ever had. I love that my former student comes over to unclog my drain, and I’m always proud to point out to my sons, “You know, I taught Tim,” I tell them. “Isn’t that awesome?”

I recommend him to all my friends.

I’m not being facetious. I’m as proud of Tim as I am of one of my other students, who recently got her MD.

When I was a kid, vocational school or trade school had a certain stigma. Because if you wanted to be “successful,” you had to go to college. That’s what our parents told us. That’s what our teachers told us. That’s what everyone told us, had told us since we were small.

According to The National Center for Education Statistics, “Between 2000 and 2016, total undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions increased by 28 percent (from 13.2 million to 16.9 million students). By 2027, total undergraduate enrollment is projected to increase to 17.4 million students.”

That’s a hell of a lot of kids being told they need a college education to succeed in life.

Especially when the path to a surer job, better money, and a more stable job, according to The Atlantic, may come through trade school, or so-called vocational schools. As they say, “The manufacturing, infrastructure, and transportation fields are all expected to grow in the coming years—and many of those jobs likely won’t require a four-year degree.”

In other words, your kids don’t need to drop tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars to party at a four-year institution. They can attend a two-year trade school just after high school — or, in some cases, concurrently — and walk out into a stable job.

But there’s a problem, and it’s not with trade school. The way we view trade school — as something less ambitious than a four-year college — hasn’t changed much. Many parents still see these schools, which can offer great opportunities, as a Plan B. As one mother told The Atlantic, “Vocational schools where we grew up seemed to be reserved for people who weren’t making it in ‘real’ school, so we weren’t completely sure how we felt about our son attending one.”

Another parent, when she told an acquaintance that her 3.95 GPA-rocking son was attending vocational-technical school, the friend immediately asked, “Why? Is he having trouble with school?” She went on to say that, “I am finding as I talk about this that there is an attitude out there that the only reason you would go to a vo-tech is if there’s some kind of problem at a traditional school.”

In Europe, the Atlantic says, half of all high school students are steered into trade school. As a former professor at a state university, I’d say that percentage is about right. It isn’t because my students weren’t capable of succeeding at a university; they were. It isn’t because they weren’t engaged; they were. It’s because they didn’t know what the hell they wanted out of a university education.

They were there with no concrete idea of why they were seeking their degree, what they wanted to do with it. They were colleging just to college. Many of them would end up struggling to get hired at a living wage. They’d end up without stable jobs, drifting, besieged by student loans. Instead, if they had pursued a trade, they could be like Tim: working at a stable job that offered decent money.

These kids shouldn’t have been psych majors. They needed to be truck drivers, cabinet makers, video production designers, brick masons, electricians.

And then there’s the cost of student loans to factor in. The Atlantic says that only two-thirds of people think the education they got was worth the loans they now owe. Earning potential? It doesn’t always offset the cost of the degree. And, as The Atlantic notes, “Vocational and technical education tends to cost significantly less than a traditional four-year degree.” So you’re getting off significantly cheaper when your kid attends a vocational or technical school than when they party at a four-year institution. If students attend part-time in high school, the costs may even be minimal or perhaps nonexistent.

We need to end the stigma attached to trade schools — and to trades themselves. College isn’t the be-all and end-all measurement of a successful life. Plenty of my friends are living in hovels, crippled by student loan debt, coddling their master’s or doctoral degrees. No kids, no house: no money.

Tim, and so many like him, aren’t living with mommy and daddy. They aren’t drowning in loan debt. They have stable jobs, jobs that pay well. Jobs that are recession-proof. They can provide for a family.

Isn’t that, in the end, the real American dream?

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