College can be a costly way to find out what your kids don’t want to do for a living. Technical education could be a better option.

By Dan Tynan
Photo by Peter Ardito

I’ve been telling my kids they’d go to college since they emerged from the womb. Didn’t matter to me whether they went to Harvard, UMich or Berkeley (go Bears!), so long as they got degrees. 

But then high school came around. Reality bit. Hard. My kids were bored, rebelled against insane homework loads and existed largely in sleep-deprived fogs. Neither earned a diploma.

My 21-year-old son eventually received his GED, worked his butt off for two years at a community college and will be attending the University of California this fall. My daughter, now 19, has a job as a barista, spends most of her income on fast food and tattoos, and is laser-focused on resisting adulthood.

Whip-smart and funny, she’s a talented writer, photographer, musician and cook. But she’s always hated school, and I’m starting to wonder if she’s cut out for college. Maybe she’d be better off attending a culinary academy. Or, because she loves animals, perhaps she could train to be a veterinary technician.

Something about this idea bothered me deeply, but I couldn’t figure out why. Then it hit me: If my daughter opted for a “trade” instead of a four-year degree, I would feel like I had failed her as a dad.

Don’t call it “vocational”

Vocational education has a stigma attached to it, and there are quantifiable reasons for that. For decades it was used to separate students onto white-collar and blue-collar career paths, often based on race and economic status. Affluent white kids were directed to the college track; the poor and people of color were shunted off to shop class.

In the 1980s that changed; almost every student, regardless of ability or inclination, was pushed toward college prep courses. The number of high school graduates attending college rose over the years, reaching 69.2% in 2015, but more than 40% of college students never complete their degree. Those who do graduate aren’t guaranteed a solid job with benefits and growth potential. Estimates for the number of grads employed in positions that don’t require a college degree range from 25% to 48%, depending on which study you believe. And the average debt load for a student who graduated in 2015 exceeded $30,000. 

Now the term “vocational education” isn’t even commonly used anymore—instead, it’s called career and technical education (CTE). And as college costs soar and U.S. industries struggle to find trained workers, CTE has become an increasingly attractive alternative to pursuing a liberal arts degree. 

“The college-for-all movement hit its high-water mark with No Child Left Behind,” says James Stone, EdD, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education. “Now the cycle is moving back in the other direction. Interest in CTE has never been stronger. Manufacturers and the tech industry are clamoring for employees.”

Career opportunities

Most students are exposed to career education in high school in some way, and some as early as middle school, says Kim Green, executive director for Advance CTE, a nonprofit that represents directors of statewide CTE programs. According to Green, students who take career courses in high school are 10% more likely to graduate. 

But the types of career education available vary widely from state to state and even district to district. Some districts fold career training into their standard curriculum; others have campuses dedicated to CTE or allow high school students to take courses at a local community college. Some districts still offer little to no practical career training. 

Resources for parents to learn more about CTE options vary just as widely. California and New York City provide websites with extensive information about CTE programs, but they’re the exception. Because it’s all so localized, there is no national directory or organization that tracks this, notes Green. 

Navigating this landscape isn’t easy. But you can start by having a frank conversation with your kids about what they enjoy doing, what they’re good at and what they hope to get from their education, says Deena Maerowitz,

a partner at The Bertram Group, an educational consulting firm. After that, talk to a school counselor, who can offer informed suggestions on what path to consider: a two-year certification program, a technical or professional degree, an apprenticeship or possibly some combination thereof. 

It’s hard to successfully argue that a student should spend years and many (many!) thousands of their parents’

dollars (or rack up major debt) working toward a degree in a subject that does not interest them when they’d be much happier as a professional chef or a mechanic, says Maerowitz. “A lot of what parents and kids struggle with is expectations,” she says. “Ultimately, we all want our kids to be successful and have a fulfilling life. That doesn’t necessarily mean getting a job where they’re working insane hours and focused on making a lot of money. It means having a balanced life.”

Animal planet

While I was writing this story, my daughter told me she’d finally come up with a plan for her future. She would take the GED test, spend two years at community college like her brother, then enroll in a public university with a solidly good veterinary medicine program. “I’ve always loved animals,” she said.

I said I thought this sounded like an awesome plan. But before she fully committed to any of it, I suggested she try to get herself hired as an assistant in a local vet’s clinic for a while, so she could really be sure that was the right path for her. Even better, perhaps she could get her vet tech certification so she could earn money while she learned. 

“It’s not about me and my expectations,” I added. “It’s about what makes you happy.” 

Just like any good dad would say.