“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela.
With this quote in mind, I have a question: What is education to you?
More specifically, what is higher education?
As our society becomes more and more inclined to pursue higher forms of education in order to further their career interests or even chase their intellectual pursuits, a college education is becoming an increasingly popular option for many young students, despite its steeply rising costs. As more and more students compete for acceptance into the most “prestigious” undergraduate institutions, most of them forget about the option to pursue a unique form of education at vocational schools.
Vocational schools, also known as trade schools or technical colleges, are widely regarded in many regions of our world. In Finland, about half of their students enter vocational school after the age of 15. In Japan, vocational schools are actually classified as part of the “higher education system,” in par with traditional colleges and universities. Subjects and courses range tremendously, from filmmaking to smithing, from digital arts to culinary arts, from fashion to plumbing, you name it.
In Vancouver, a unique form of vocational school exists, operating as a learning community instead of an overarching educational institution. They are based on bartering, in which students sign up for courses and provide items requested by teachers, ranging from a batch of freshly baked cookies to courses in other fields. This system transcends the typical translation of information seen at most traditional colleges, instead inspiring a community of ideas through a method not too different from the famed Socratic Method.
So why is there stigma against vocational schools in the United States? In the country with the highest costs for higher education and one of the lowest job opportunities for graduates of such institutions, why are trade schools perceived as inferior?
At my own college, a heavily STEM-oriented research university, Humanities and Arts students are judged and subtly mocked for their lack of a “practical” choice of major. But at the same time, trade schools students, despite their choice to pursue the most pragmatic form of education possible, are discriminated for some other reason. Perhaps it’s the stigma of their lack of intellectualism. Because going into hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for a piece of paper with no financial guarantees makes you the smarter person, right? Regardless of the reason, these unfair perceptions have prevented trade schools from becoming recognized as a legitimate form of education and career choice.
Fortunately, vocational schools are becoming increasingly accepted in many parts of our country. Even at the high school level, students are given the opportunity to pursue a trade without being precluded from pursuing traditional forms of higher education as well. For example, in many high schools scattered throughout New York, high school seniors have the opportunity to participate in the BOCES Program, in which they spend half of their school day at another school learning trades such as fashion, performing arts, culinary arts, and more. The BOCES Program mission statement consists of:
1. Preparing diverse populations for roles in the global economy.
2. Providing cost-effective shared services to school districts.
3. Initiating collaboration to close gaps in student achievement.
Their services extend beyond providing mere hands-on career programs for high school students. They also seek to improve services for students with disabilities, and even work to train adults for literacy and employment.
However, this does not mean vocational schools come without flaws. One serious issue with vocational schools (and colleges that provide Associate’s Degrees) is that many of them are simply “for-profit” universities that operate as businesses with complete disregard for actual education. As pointed out by fellow TP writers Jillian Feinstein and Mollie Yacano, many trade schools that claim to provide upwards financial mobility through their degrees actually provide no real value at all whatsoever.
Additionally, many “trades” that are taught at trade schools are just as easily learned through private teaching, or even through a plethora of free resources. Many successful artists, designers, and chefs are self-taught. Unfortunately, unlike traditional colleges, trade school do not provide their students the fluidity to pursue multitudes of academic interests before choosing a specific field, and require dedicated planning in order to ensure that your investment does not go to waste.
At the end of the day, a civil engineer cannot exist without construction workers. A business executive cannot exist without accountants. Don’t let the stigma of higher education preclude you from giving trade schools serious thought.