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Is Trade School a Good Trade Off for College

June 23, 2017

One frequent criticism of those who support public education is their implicit (and sometime EXplicit) notion that every child should leave high school prepared for college. Over the past several years there is an emerging consensus that college might not be the best route to economic success for everyone and that trade school might be sufficient for many. In a recent post in the Anova blog, written by education researcher Fredrik deBoer, he describes the emerging thinking on this thusly:

…the idea that we need to be sending more people to trade and tech schools has broad bipartisan, cross-ideological appeal. This argument has a lot of different flavors, but it tends to come down to the claim that we shouldn’t be sending everyone to college (I agree!) and that instead we should be pushing more people into skilled trades. Oftentimes this is encouraged as an apprenticeship model over a schooling model.

But in examining data on whether this intuitively appealing idea can work, Mr. deBoer found the the  recent study conducted by Eric A. Hanushek, Guido Schwerdt, Ludger Woessmann, and Lei Zhang, were discouraging. The study by Hanushek et al compared how workers who attend vocational schools perform relative to those who attend general education schools. Titled “Trade Schools are No Panacea”, deBoer summarized the findings of Hanushek et al in chairs and graphs and concludes that “…In broad strokes, vocational/tech training helps you get a job right out of school, but hurts you as you go along later in life

That conclusion seemed right to Mr. deBoer as it does to me as a liberal arts advocate. He writes:

…vocational training is likely more specific and job-focused than general ed, which means that its students are more ready to jump right into work. But over time, technological and economic changes change which skills and competencies are valued by employers, and the general education students have been “taught to learn,” meaning that they are more adaptable and can acquire new and valuable skills.

As he concludes his post, deBoer notes that because predicting the future is impossible and some jobs require years and years of training, it is far more beneficial to avoid specific training altogether. Instead, de Boer finds it

….far more useful… to try and train students into being nimble, adaptable learners than to train them for particular jobs. That has the bonus advantage of restoring the “practical” value of the humanities and arts, which have always been key aspects of learning to be well-rounded intellects.

His closing sentences provide a sound economic and moral basis for creating a guaranteed minimum wage:

What’s needed is not to try and read the tea leaves and guess which fields might reward some slice of our workforce now, but to redefine our attitude towards work and material security through the institution of some sort of guaranteed minimum income. Then, we can train students in the fields in which they have interest and talent, contribute to their human flourishing in doing so, and help shelter them from the fickleness of the economy. The labor market is not a morality play.

I find the last sentence particularly revealing, because many people view humanities arts with disdain. Those who place a premium on efficiency view liberal arts as “impractical” or— even worse— a “waste of time”. By assigning a higher value on courses that “prepare students for the REAL world” education policy makers imply that the humanities and arts have no value when, in fact, those trained in the arts are often the kind of nimble, adaptable learners who will likely weather any economic storms that brew in the future.

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