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Vocational schools can offer a needed alternative for today’s students

Vocational schools offer a chance to learn skills students can use for the rest of their lives. | Fiona Legesse/The Cougar

There are alternative paths to a successful life that do not involve a traditional college experience. Right now, students all over the country are struggling to get through school while taking on massive amounts of debt that will follow them for years. We have been given the ultimatum that it is college or nothing.

But, there are other options. Options that we, as a society, have completely neglected. One of those choices is vocational schools. Vocational schools teach those students who are not college-bound valuable skills that will provide them with a source of income for the rest of their lives.

Vocational schools, however, are no longer prevalent in middle-class society. High schools no longer give students the option to learn valuable skills that aren’t taught in colleges.

By providing students with no alternative, society is sending the message that if they do not possess the mindset that is required by college, they are doomed to unemployment in their eyes. Individuals who are not college bound are then discouraged from pursuing any education past the high-school level. 

It’s time we rethink our stance on vocational schools.

Schooling timeline

Before the 1950s

During this time period, education was becoming more and more of a must rather than a choice for young Americans. Students would follow the three Rs, reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, and were taught trade skills on the side.

The 1950s and beyond

This is when things got tricky.

Beginning in the 1950s, a new educational idea appeared: Students should follow academic paths based on their capability. In other words, those who would continue on to college would receive more advanced classes of reading, writing and arithmetic. This is where higher levels of science and math came in.

Consequently, the advanced students would never see a trade for the rest of his or her academic life. Meanwhile, students who did not meet the standards posed by higher education were given mediocre classes and taught trade skills instead.

Eventually, this escalated more into a test not of skill but of socioeconomic status and race. What was once a perfectly functioning system had now been tainted by societal prejudice.


Today, education has shifted from mixing academic perspectives with handiwork — which could arguably be life skills as well — to solely theoretical studies. For public schools, institutes that cater to just about everyone of all ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses, students are prepared only for college, making “college-prep” the core curriculum for United States’ standards.

Imagine an entire set of expectations based off of middle-class white individuals. Who knew?

Vocational school, as the education type would be dubbed, has been relegated only to the minorities and working-class students. Not that this is bad in any way. As a matter of fact, I personally admire those who study practical skills (learning from a DIYer on YouTube is not the same).

While I also understand the value of higher education, not everyone can pay $127,000 for a bachelor’s degree.


Education before the 1950s was certainly an interesting time to be alive. There was an economic boom, and schools saw a major increase in both immigrants and rural applicants. This meant the institutes had to adjust to a new group of people: the lower socioeconomic class.

In 1917, the Smith-Hughes Act was passed, which allowed the U.S. government to fund vocational education. Those funds prepared the newfound set of students for a career that did not require the level of education that their more wealthy peers benefited from.

Schooling at the time not only prepared students for college in the way that we understand today, but it also would offer an educational opportunity — or track — for individuals who came from families that simply did not have the means to study in universities. Instead, they were placed on a course that allowed them to work with their hands.

The vocational track would actually benefit from a surplus number of less fortunate families.

Children from these less affluent families would have an opportunity to learn a new skill set and have a chance at improving their current living conditions and future prospects. There was a rather distinct shift before the 1950s and after, that changed the opportunities for employment — especially within the lower socioeconomic class — for good.

Different learning styles

It goes without saying that each and every student who enters high school is unique. Each individual possesses their own strengths, weakness, ambitions and learning styles. It may come as a shock to educators, but not everyone is good at math, excels at English, is aspiring to be the next Mozart or is a history whiz. Sure, there are cases where students are strong in one topic but struggle in another.

They just need a little help, right?

Well, not necessarily. There are some students who cannot be bothered to even care about these academics. In some of their eyes, all they are doing is sitting down, reading a book, listening to a teacher talk, taking notes and then being sent home with homework.

Some marvel at learning different concepts. Others abhor it. These students are not necessarily less competent than their theoretical peers, their brains are just wired differently. These students are stuck in the classroom without another option. They’re stuck.

But why don’t students adjust their learning styles? After all, going to college offers better job opportunities and better income opportunities. Getting a scholarship, especially for those who come from struggling families, is definitely worth it, in theory. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 68 percent of high school students that graduate go to college. That leaves 30 percent of graduates behind with neither job skills nor sufficient academics.

This 30 percent could benefit from some sort of vocational school. Learning to weld, fix household appliances or any other skill-based job could be a life-long gift. But we’re not teaching those students a skill.

Flourishing jobs

High schools are preparing students for college when college can be a barrier. There are not many other options for high school students. 

Believe it or not, skilled jobs are still flourishing. And this will continue for years. We are always in need of people who can perform skilled labor. People who work with their hands for a living are still in demand. Your plumber or your mechanic or the guy who climbs the poles to keep your internet up are examples of people with blue-collar jobs that are also flourishing.

People will always need skilled labor for jobs they can’t complete. It’s necessary to teach the next generation of students some valuable trade.

In the light of university education, vocational school is in a sour light, so much so that the idea of learning a trade is completely out of the question for high school students who are discovering what they want their career path to be. There is this sort of “college for everyone” mindset that has been set by society, but it is commonly forgotten that college is something not everyone can afford.

Vocational schools create opportunities for students. Vocational schools offer a necessary alternative for students who may not want to go to college, for those who believe college is not the goal. Let’s take a hard look and think about whether or not vocational schools are really as bad as we’ve made them out to be.

Opinion columnist Kristin Chbeir is a psychology senior and can be reached at [email protected].

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