The State of American Trade Schools

By on May 14, 2019

From Popular Mechanics:  This is a golden time for postsecondary trade and tech schools. Not just because they’re becoming more profitable than ever. But because, at least according to some, they’re finally shaking off the stigma that has dogged their students, instructors, and administrators for so long. Over the past year, media from The Wall Street Journal to PBS have hailed technology schools and programs as harbingers of a new economy and reformers of a postsecondary education system that’s become over-priced, over-valued, and often irrelevant.

Statistics are a big part of the story. Between 1988 and 2018, the cost of a four-year college degree increased by 213 percent at public schools and 129 percent at private schools. Over the same period, wages for most Americans remained stagnant. Meanwhile, unemployment rates among young college graduates have grown from 4.3 percent in 2000 to 5.6 percent in 2017. Young male college graduates have been particularly hard hit. Their unemployment rate spiked from 4.1 percent in 2000 to 7.1 percent in 2017. At the same time, a scarcity of skilled workers has led to a nationwide labor shortage that’s resulted in increased wages for a number of blue-collar occupations. The lesson for many is obvious.

“We are lending money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back to train them for jobs that no longer exist,” says Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe, summing up a widespread viewpoint for Fox News.

Into this breach have stepped trade and tech schools with a seductive promise: instead of spending four years and amassing life-crushing debt chasing a four-year degree with softening value, spend less money and time—typically one or two years, but as little as nine weeks, for a coding boot camp—training for a specific job in an industry that pays well and has a massive need for workers.

It’s a reductive return-on-investment approach to postsecondary education that has transfixed administrators and policy makers at all levels.

“There is a revolution going on that covers both secondary and postsecondary education and it has a very strong career orientation,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “‘Career pathway’ is the phrase of the moment.”

Carnevale calls the push–pull between general and career-specific curriculum the “core tension in American education.” Careerists have lately been winning the fight thanks in large part to the fevered demands of industry. Private enterprise has lately become so frustrated with the inability of America’s school systems to turn out qualified workers—an instructor I met at one tech school told me many high school grads literally can’t read a tape measure—that many companies/organizations have begun taking education into their own hands.

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