President Biden is currently considering massive federal student loan debt cancellation. It’s easy to see why. The nation’s total student debt now exceeds $1.7 trillion.
The situation is even worse as many students in debt leave school without a degree – but still struggle for years to repay their loans.
Moreover, it is far from clear that all this spending on higher education provides our economy with the workers it needs. Even as the number of Americans with college degrees has increased, a range of vital industries — from construction and manufacturing to auto repair — have seen the supply of skilled workers steadily shrink.
A long-running educational experiment in Massachusetts could point the way out of these two crises. The state’s extensive network of vocational and technical schools — or “voc-tech schools,” as they’re known — offer high school students a path to career success that doesn’t require an expensive four-year college degree.
By expanding this educational model to more states, policymakers could reduce student debt while addressing the shortage of skilled workers in some of the nation’s biggest industries.
That so many Americans are struggling to pay off their student debt is evidence of a larger crisis in higher education. Today, it’s conventional wisdom that even a modest middle-class existence requires a four-year college degree. The perceived need for a college education has allowed institutions to charge increasingly exorbitant tuition fees. Student debt levels have risen in parallel.
At the same time, those who drop out of college without a degree or who never attend college are often condemned to low-paying jobs with few reliable pathways to better-paying employment. This situation describes a huge segment of the American workforce. According to one estimate, more than 44% of workers in the country have low-wage jobs. Of these, just under half have a high school diploma or less.
Yet businesses across the economy urgently need skilled workers. The shortage of skilled labor in the manufacturing sector is on track to reach more than 2.1 million workers by the end of the decade, according to a recent study. In the economy as a whole, some 4 million skilled jobs are currently unfilled.
In short, America’s current approach to higher education is failing everyone from debt-ridden college grads to low-wage non-college graduates — and even understaffed businesses.
Massachusetts’ voc-tech model may offer a solution.
Unlike traditional high schools, students at the Bay State’s 41 voice technology schools spend half of their time doing academic work and the other half learning a technical trade such as automotive technology, carpentry, electronics, advanced manufacturing or culinary arts.
Far from detracting from academic performance, the practical component of voc-tech programs complements and deepens the understanding of liberal arts students. In fact, students at voc-tech schools perform roughly as well as their traditional high school peers on state tests — even though they spend half their time teaching in school.
The dropout rate for students in state-run voice technology schools is one-third that of students in traditional high schools.
This suggests that students graduating from voice technology schools are just as prepared as their peers from purely academic schools to pursue a college education. But voice technology students also leave school with the technical know-how to begin fulfilling, well-paying careers in one of the many industries where skilled labor is desperately scarce.
The result is an education model that meets the needs of students while driving growth and creating opportunity across the economy, something the status quo education system has failed to do.
There’s no reason for the voc-tech model to remain exclusive to the Bay State. By following Massachusetts’ example, states across the country have the opportunity to trade a failed and costly approach to education for one that actually works.
David J. Ferreira is a career professional technical teacher, coordinator, principal, and superintendent and served as executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators. Chris Sinacola is a former newspaper editor and author of five books.
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