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Nearly one-third of Americans with community college associate degrees or certificates make more money than those with bachelor’s degrees, according to a 2013 Georgetown University study. Once known as “Voc-Tech” (Vocational-Technical), community college Career & Technical Education (CTE) programs have long produced graduates whose career success challenges conventional wisdom that getting a bachelor’s degree is the only way to secure a middle-class lifestyle.

Georgetown’s Jeff Strohl suggests that much of the stigma regarding vocational technical education can be traced to a time when many low-income, working-class and minority students were discouraged from pursing college preparatory studies and “tracked” into non-academic programs.

The Great Recession, the collapse of traditional manufacturing, and stories of unscrupulous trade schools that deliver far less than promised have made many Americans even more suspicious of vocational education.

While four-year college enrollments continue upward along with snowballing student debt, the U.S. is challenged by a growing shortage of “middle skills” workers who only need a certificate or associate degree to succeed in the workforce. While many bachelor’s degree graduates end up underemployed, not enough associate degree holders are being produced.

US News & World Report identifies engineering technology, radiation technology and medical imaging, plumbing and heating, and dental hygiene as examples of fields that don’t require a four-year degree — fields where annual salaries can range from $40,000 a year for an apprentice to more than $100,000.

Recent articles in The Economist and Chronicle of Higher Education indicate that the renewed focus on educational programs that combine work and learning is not limited to the U.S.

Many European nations recognize that not all young people will benefit from “a purely academic education.” Seventy percent of Swiss students participate in vocational training, while in Germany more than 60 percent do so. One result is remarkably low youth unemployment rates in both countries.

A 2014 study on the economic impact of community colleges concludes that they support a range of industry sectors by supplying skilled workers that increase local, regional and national productivity. In 2012 alone, community college graduates contributed more than $806 billion in added income to the national economy.

Greg Miraglia is one of several deans who oversees Career and Technical Education at Napa Valley College (NVC). He says the California Community College Chancellor’s Office and the state legislature are providing more grants to help colleges organize their CTE offerings, reduce duplication of programs, and focus on regional employment needs. The result is a much better use of taxpayer dollars.

Another Chronicle article describes the not uncommon experience of Eslie Murraine, a young man who dropped out of college after two years because he didn’t know what he wanted to do in life. Following a fire in his home, he became fascinated with the electrical causes of the destruction. At age 33, he is taking classes at a Maryland community college and is an electrical apprentice.

“I didn’t know what an apprenticeship was,” Murraine recalled. “If we introduced kids to these kinds of things early, I think it would really benefit society.”

Miraglia reports, “Community colleges are developing partnerships with area schools that enable students to be introduced to various career fields while they’re still in high school — even middle school.”

He describes an academy where sixth-graders interested in public safety can explore career possibilities. In addition to regular courses, high school students in Napa and Calistoga can take classes in business, child care, hospitality, health and human services. Dean Miraglia says a collaboration with St. Helena High School’s culinary arts program is also in development.

“Career pathways” programs enable students to take courses in high school that prepare them for careers. For example, a student can take classes leading to a certificate in child development and secure an entry level job after graduation. Later, that student might return to NVC for an associate degree and qualify for a more advanced position.

Unlike the earlier “tracking programs,” these approaches are intended to allow students to explore fields of interest early. Miraglia adds, “Students may, or may not, pursue their initial career interests and may decide to complete a certificate, associate degree, or transfer to a four-year college.”

Bachelor’s degree holders’ salaries eventually catch up with their associate degree holding peers. However, a California community college education costs about $6,000 — often with few or no loans and a career — while a year at a private college can cost 10 times that much. That’s well worth considering when mapping out a plan for success in life.

Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to:



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