Community Voices

The high school-to-college track: Is it for everyone?

If everyone had the desire and ability to complete a four-, six- or eight-year college program, how would that impact society? Who would maintain America’ s transport systems? Who would build its skyscrapers, and space shuttles? Who would wire and plumb our structures? Who would take our X-rays, build and fix the engines that keep our cities running?

Preparing high school youth for success in the world today requires a vastly different educational experience than a generation ago. Today, many of America’ s students are not meaningfully engaged or motivated in their high school academic experience. And as they grow closer to the launch pad, students are fraught with anxiety. For some, it’s the stress of being accepted into a university, for others, it is a time to match skills with interest as they prepare to enter the workforce.

Our society and educational systems overemphasize college entrance while noticeably disregarding the merit of trade and vocational career achievement. It is unfair and impractical to think that every high school student desires or is able to attend a four-year university right out of high school. Some students need time to explore before deciding on higher education pursuits, some may not be able to meet the rigors of academic challenge, and others may have a distinct calling altogether. Whatever the reason, choosing vocation over college should be a decision made with the same resources and in the same regard as choosing college.


In her article, The Troubled History of Vocational Education, Emily Hanford explains that vocational education wasn’t originally designed to prepare students for college. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, authorized federal funding for vocational education in American schools and explicitly described vocational ed as preparation for careers not requiring a bachelor’s degree.

The focus on vocational education began in the early 20th century, prompted in part by big economic and social changes. Factory owners were facing a shortage of skilled labor in a rapidly industrializing society. And public schools were seeing an influx of immigrants and farm kids.

Many kids would have learned farming or skilled trades from their parents in an earlier era. But with the rise of factories, it was no longer safe for kids to learn to work alongside their parents. So they went to high school — but the problem was that secondary schools didn’t know what to do with them.

Historically, high schools were accustomed to working with a very small group of children from educated families. The liberal arts curriculum provided prepared them for university. For kids who came from other farms or were newly immigrated, vocational training was thought to better serve their needs.

Over the last 70 years, the commitment to and support of vocational programs have fluctuated, reflecting current economic needs and the ambivalence towards preparing young people for employment out of high school. While progressive groups argue that technical education creates second-class trajectories for low-income and minority students, negating the fact that not all kids desire an academic path, is impractical and unjust. Thus, advocating “college for all” right out of high school may not in the best interest for all students. Programs that embrace trade and vocational talents need equal emphasis and promotion.


In their New York Times article, “Straight from High School to a Career,” Katherine Newman and Hella Winston say that despite ongoing rhetoric about declining wages and skyrocketing costs of college, what continues to be omitted is that hundreds of thousands of U.S. middle skill jobs will soon be vacant — due to the lack of qualified workers. From welders, pipe fitters, and manufacturing machinists to radiology technicians and electricians, estimates suggest that 600,000 jobs — jobs that provide middle class wages — will remain open. Careers that do not require a college degree.

In her NPR article, “Should more kids skip college for workforce training?” Judy Woodruff discusses vocational ed with David Wheeler, Principal of Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School (SRVTHS). Wheeler says that a great proportion of US high school students who go to college, never earn their degree. He proposes that one solution may lie in putting greater emphasis on alternative tracks — such as high school vocational education.

When a student comes out of high school, not knowing what they want to do, goes to college, and drops out, they often end up in debt and without a career. Wheeler believes this is all preventable, writing that career exposure starts in ninth grade and students spend the first semester sampling each of the roughly 20 professions offered. Each student learns algebra, literature class and physics. In follow up studies on his students, he says that over 90 percent are actively working, in the military, or are enrolled in college.

With this in mind, there has been some movement towards resurrecting vocational education — now referred to as career and technical education. Some schools have been extraordinarily effective, while others are struggling.

One South Carolina school — Pickens County Career and Technology Center — exemplifies this framework. In the machine technology shop, students program computers to make plastic molds. In a commercial kitchen, aspiring chefs prepare multicourse meals. The school also offers training in health sciences, mechatronics, masonry, electrical work, carpentry, mechanical design and more. Students often spend half a day on regular high school curriculum and the other half at the career center. In her Washington Post article, “High school career academies prepare students for jobs,” Ovetta Wiggins shares similar impacts of other career academies.


Vocational education has had critics from the start. John Dewey, the 20th century educational philosopher and social progressive, opposed vocational ed because he thought it built class distinction into the design of public education.

From its inception, vocational education was designed to teach kids the specific skills for one job or career. The idea was that to be a welder (or a cosmetologist), you will always have a job as a welder and life will be good. During the 1900s, the idea that people could be trained in one area and rely on an industry to employ them for life was a reasonable concept. There were lots of jobs — good union jobs — for people with a high school education.

But during the 1960s and ’70s, civil rights advocates for low-income kids grew concerned by the populations being steered into vocational education. Studies at that time showed that students in vocational programs were much more likely to be from lower-income families with lower levels of education.

By the 1970s, the good jobs that required only a high school education were beginning to disappear. Technology and globalization increased the skill levels required for most occupations — the labor market became more volatile. Entire sectors of the economy were being wiped out, and new kinds of jobs were created.

With this changing economic picture, workers needed to be multiskilled and be able to retrain in order to remain successful. Basic academic foundations proved essential to this success, but early vocational programs did not offer that foundation. In response, the American education model transformed into a high school-to-university track. College bound curriculums derailed many students as they were prompted to take courses that would not end up serving them well in the working world.

A renewed interest in CTE quietly arose — interests in educational programs that would provide students with a basic academic foundation plus a specialized skill set. With this skill set, students became empowered - to become experts in their field, to become business owners, to become teachers, or to branch out into other specialties.

CTE is seen as a tool to improve engagement and achievement in high schools and allows growing time — time to go out into the work force, acquire skills and figure out what really interests them. Yet CTE has its critics. Some say that CTE still tracks disadvantaged youth and ultimately keeps them in lower economic brackets. Some see CTE as an outlet for kids who have behavior issues or learning challenges. Others add that while students can benefit from early job training opportunities to keep them focused, they often spend decades playing catch-up to their college-educated age peers.


All students need to be prepared for global competition — whether it be via academia or specialized skill sets. In both of these tracks, our youth are provided with the tools to secure productivity, innovation, and self-reliance.

A U.S. Department of Education article, “High Schools and Career Readiness: strengthening the pipeline to the middle class,” says that high school students must prepared to meet the needs of the global economy. One of several federal programs is the High School Redesign Initiative. This grant supported program ( Gates Foundation), in conjunction with the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE/ promotes career focus in high school — with a special focus of those attending low and under-performing high schools. The initiative supports organizations that partner with school districts — from local businesses and major industries to community based organizations and nonprofits — to redesign and infuse 21st century career programs into their curriculums.

Right here in South Florida, there are a few grassroots programs in action. One such program is Knowledge of Careers (KOC), founded and led by Michael Ragheb, MSPH.

The mission of KOC is to promote post-high school career success by providing an invigorating career exposure program beginning in ninth through 12th grades. KOC does this by making career opportunities more transparent, by helping students develop a knowledge base of these careers, by promoting networking and internship opportunities that can lead to future careers and most importantly, by allowing students to see the critical relationship between academic performance in high school and future career success.