Degrees or certificates?

President Obama wants the U.S. to lead the world in college graduates by 2020. But last week, he endorsed a plan to qualify 500,000 community college students for skilled manufacturing jobs over the next five years.  With a year of training or less, they’d earn a certificate developed by the National Association of Manufacturers in conjunction with community colleges.

With college costs soaring and more graduates working in jobs that don’t require a degree, should educators encourage more students to pursue vocational training rather than seeking a broad-based college education? On National Journal, the debate is on.

Seventy percent of Swiss and German students are tracked into vocational and apprenticeship programs, writes Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

The majority of their students spend half of their days in school and the other half working for a company, getting practical experience in their chosen field and getting paid. The youth unemployment rate is about five percent in those countries as opposed to the double digit rate here in America.

The U.S. once dumped minority students into vocational tracks that ruled out a college degree, he writes. “But the overreaction has not been truly beneficial to minority students because today only fifty percent of them are graduating and college attendance and graduation rates for that population are dismal.”

In my response, I argue that students need to know early in high school whether they’re on track to earn a bachelor’s degree — or to take remedial classes, go into debt and then drop out without a credential of any kind. Many students who think they’re doing OK — mostly B’s and a few C’s in classes with college-prep labels — are not prepared for college-level classes.

High school counselors should understand the success ratios for their students: What percentage of B students complete a four-year degree? What percentage of C students complete any degree? What’s the starting pay of electricians, welders, radiology techs and paralegals in the area? They should be able to offer students a career-prep track leading to non-remedial community college classes by ninth or tenth grade instead of a pseudo-college-prep track.

While many believe that career-prep students need the same math and English classes as college-prep students, I don’t think that’s true. Our best students should learn to write college research papers and read college texts; they need a strong math and science foundation to keep the door open to STEM careers. (Quite a few make it to college now with inadequate writing and math skills.) Our average students should focus on developing solid reading, writing, math and science skills — not on preparing for high-level academic work they’ll never need to do or want to do.

Many students don’t particularly enjoy academics or want to spend more years in a classroom than is absolutely necessary. They do want to qualify for a decent job. I think they’ll work much harder with that goal clearly in front of them. You want to earn $50,000 as a manufacturing technician at Local Industries? Here are the English, math and science classes you’ll need to pass with a B or better to get into the certificate program at Nearby Community College. That’s a motivator.