Removing Stigmas of Vocational School Will Improve U.S. Education

According to a Pew Research poll, only 50% of all females and 37% all of males who have graduated from four-year colleges give the U.S. higher education system excellent or good marks for the value it provides, especially given the money spent by these students and their families.

These statistics not only indicate a problem with the American higher education system, but also highlight the way Americans perceive the role of higher education. President Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign, which called for a college education for every American, echoes popular sentiments that everyone should go — and should want to go — to college. But the fact is this isn’t the case. Many people prefer to learn outside a classroom or don’t enjoy the broad general education college requires, and the current perception of education in the U.S. prevents them from meeting their needs. 

Everyone knows somebody who is smart, great with tools or maybe numbers, and has perfect coordination, yet hates school and performs poorly as a result. Too often, however, such people feel the need to go to a four-year university because it is what society or their families expects of them, wasting both students’ time and the country’s resources. As a country, America needs to remove the stigmas associated with a vocational education so that the system may grow, which will in turn improve the American education system as a whole and the value students receive from it.

While the belief that attending a university is the surest path to success and happiness largely goes by unquestioned, it in fact only began to take its place in American ideology about half a century ago. Between 1945 and 1975, a period Arthur Cohen, author of The Shaping of American Higher Education, calls the “Mass Higher Education Era,” college enrollment in the United States increased from 1.7 million to roughly 11 million students. This jump was largely due to the passage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, more commonly known as The G.I. Bill. 

Congress, fearful of mass unemployment after the return of millions of men who served in World War II, agreed to provide each veteran with one year of schooling as a full-time student, plus an additional month of schooling for each month served in the armed forces.  With the bill, most veterans could complete a four-year program at no cost to themselves or their families. Higher education enrollment doubled after the G.I. Bill, but more importantly, the attitude about college changed forever.

As Cohen describes, “The belief that everyone could go to college became firmly established in the mind of the American people; college was no longer reserved for the elite few... Anyone who did not want to attend college was considered misguided and in need of special encouragement.” Thus we can see, that while the expansion of opportunities to go to college was undoubtedly a huge benefit to our country as whole, the accompanying stigma that college was the right path for everybody has not served to benefit all. 

Today, step into any college classroom and you can see just how many people are interested in a higher education. You see students pretending to take notes on their laptops and who are actually checking Facebook or online chatting with friends; students are asleep on their desks or doodling in their notebooks; sometimes you look around and the seats are empty — most students didn’t bother to show up at all. These students, the ones who go to class (or don’t), but aren’t really present, are students I tend to think are in college for a diploma, not an education.

What we have created through our insistence that every person go to college is a very expensive growing-up period. With even public educations rounding out to almost $100,000, if you can even figure out what you want to do soon enough to finish in four years, the advantages of living in the dorms and learning to play beer pong aren’t enough — which goes back to the statistics of unsatisfied graduates found by Pew researchers. If people aren’tsatisfied with their college educations, it’s probably because in a lot of ways, they actuallydidn’t need them.

As an alternative, the U.S. currently has in place a fairly extensive network of trade and vocational schools, offering associate degrees, diplomas, and certificates in fields that include art and design, healthcare, paralegal studies, information security, cosmetology, as well as many others. And just check out College Dropout Hall of Fame to see an A-Z list of successful people who don’t have a degree. 

Once people find themselves in the institution that best suits them and their needs, resources will be better allocated, especially since not all degrees will require four years. The U.S. will have more skilled laborers and classes will be more geared toward the type of education students actually want. 

The bottom line is, not everyone was meant to go to college, and we need to stop seeing that as a negative thing.

Photo Credit: UGA College of Ag

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Melissa Freeman

I am a recent graduate of the University of California, Davis, with a bachelor's degree in English. I have interned in a California Superior court, in a California Assemblymember's office, worked at an international school, and edited my college newspaper. I am currently living in the Los Angeles area and studying for the LSAT while preparing to move to Brazil in December.

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