From the Desk of Victoria Juarez

As recently as the 1980s, vocational training was the Rodney Dangerfield of postsecondary education. To the extent it was acknowledged at all, it got little respect in policy circles and fared worse with the public – the byproduct of a decades-long emphasis on college degree attainment.

Times have changed. Educators, policymakers, and industry leaders have come to realize that vocational training programs serve a vital economic purpose, namely the development of skilled tradespeople. What’s more, parents and students have increasingly realized that such programs offer a viable route to prosperity and fulfillment in adulthood.

In fact, according to Popular Mechanics, this is an especially propitious moment for postsecondary trade and technical schools in the United States. Enrollment is up, and the stigma that has long attended vocational training programs has begun to wane.

Consider Perry Technical Institute, a nonprofit trade school located in Central Washington that has seen its enrollment double since 2007. Researchers from UC Berkeley and Harvard and Brown universities recently ranked it number one in the nation in income mobility and median student income by age 34. According to the Department of Education, Perry Tech grads earn considerably more than graduates of nearby Central Washington University.

Career prospects and earning potential are certainly important metrics, but they are not the only reasons to champion schools like Perry Technical Institute. The fact is trade and technical schools offer a compelling alternative to college.

We must understand that some high school upperclassmen, by virtue of their interests and aptitudes, are ill-suited to four-year college degree programs. We do these students, their families, and institutions of higher learning a disservice by insisting that college is always the best choice for graduating seniors – an all too common occurrence.

According to The Hechinger Report, more than a million undergraduates with federal student loan debt drop out of college each year. Imagine if even a fraction of these students could be encouraged to pursue vocational training in lieu of college. I have to believe the nation’s college completion rate would improve, though of course trade and technical schools are hardly immune to students dropping out.

The Santa Maria Joint Union High School District’s new $20 million Career Technical Education Center is undoubtedly an encouraging development. I wonder, though: Are all communities in Santa Barbara County getting the message?

The Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara awarded just 14 vocational/technical training scholarships in May. To give you a sense of how paltry that number is, the Foundation awarded 2,607 scholarships for the coming academic year. Last year we awarded all of seven vocational/technical training scholarships!

It could be that our vocational scholarship totals are lagging indicators, and that local students are in fact enrolling in trade and technical schools in large numbers. That is not my sense, and I suspect there is a lingering stigma associated with vocational training in some quarters.

I hope I have it wrong. Regardless, educators and families should be mindful of the good that can come from postsecondary vocational training.

Versions of this commentary have appeared on Noozhawk and in the Santa Maria Times.