Vocational Education’s ‘Neglected Majority’ : Non-College Bound Students Get Short Shrift In Academics, Analysts Say

The Christian Science Monitor

Things are fine now for David Healy. He recently went free-lance after having worked as a mechanical artist in a prestigious Boston advertising agency.

But high school was rough. He and academics didn’t mix. “I thought regular schools were set up for other people, and not me. I didn’t think I was stupid. I knew what they thought and didn’t care,” he said. His situation turned around when he went to Minuteman Tech.

David and students like him have been called “the neglected majority.” They’re the 50% of high school graduates who are not headed for college: the future mechanics, computer programmers, machinists, nurses, and police. Education analysts say these students are getting short shrift in an academic system geared to meet the needs of the baccalaureate-bound.

Ernest Boyer, former U.S. commissioner of education and author of several influential reports, said the United States tracks students into “programs for those who ‘think’ and those who ‘work,’ when in fact life for all of us is a blend of both.” This schism is harming the nation at a time when industry desperately needs workers who can not only keep the country running but also read the manuals. Boyer gave distressingly low marks to vocational education in his 1983 Carnegie Report on the nation’s high schools.


A Dumping Ground

Vocational education has long been thought of as a place to dump poor students and train them in yesterday’s skills. To improve the quality of vocational education and ensure that students get strong training in academics, Dale Parnell, author of “The Neglected Majority” (Community College Press, 1985), a book about young people who don’t go to college, advocates that schools adopt a tech-prep degree program that would link the last 2 years of high school with 2 years of community college. Parnell is president and chief executive officer of the American Assn. of Community and Junior Colleges.

The idea is finding wide response. Since his book came out, nine states have either adopted or are in the process of adopting such a program. Rep. William Ford (D-Mich.) recently introduced the Tech-Prep Education Act, which will establish a program of matching grants to secondary schools and community colleges to encourage them to provide a 4-year program of tech-prep education. The program would provide technical preparation in at least one mechanical, industrial, or practical field, as well as a high level of competence in mathematics, science, and communication.

“All the national reform energies have been poured into academic education,” said Gerald Hayward, deputy director of the National Center for Research in Vocational Education at the UC Berkeley. “But the curricula for the bulk of students have been ignored in reform efforts.”


Majority in Job Market

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 85% of jobs do not require a college diploma.

Students who are not college-bound have two choices: to enroll in a general education track, or to take vocational courses in either a comprehensive high school or one of the 1,200 regional vocational technical school in the country. “The general education program doesn’t prepare students for work and doesn’t prepare them for college,” said Parnell. General education students receive less career counseling, are less focused in their aims and have fewer marketable skills, he said.

“The idea that we just give them a good general education and industry will do it has big holes in it,” said Robert Taylor, former executive director of the National Center for Vocational Education at Ohio State University. “To the degree that the schools can give job and learning skills, it tends to make our industries competitive worldwide.”

Vocational programs, because they have to keep up with rapid changes in technology, cost more but often don’t get more money. The Department of Education spent $1.2 billion on vocational education in 1987, in contrast to $8 billion on student financial aid.

“About twice as many jobs require welding skills . . . as jobs which require chemistry,” Parnell said. “Yet nearly every high school has a chemistry laboratory and chemistry courses, while relatively few high schools have welding labs or offer welding courses.” Most training is in industrial arts, home economics, and agriculture, he said, not where the greatest need for workers is.

Regional Better

Parnell said regional vocational technical schools tend to be better than vocational programs in comprehensive high schools, but the “record is spotty; it depends on the state.” In some states, “the trend is to do away with vocational ed programs, because students have so many more requirements to meet to graduate that there is no time to take vocational classes, which are electives.”


Despite vocational education’s bad reputation, Paul Campbell, recently retired senior research specialist at the National Center for Vocational Education, said some powerful data is emerging from his study, based on an ongoing national survey that has followed 12,686 students for the last 8 years through high school into the labor market.

“Compared to students who graduate from general or academic programs, the findings tend to make voc-ed look better than it’s typically viewed. . . . They tend to get higher levels of employment, better wages, and they’re more likely to be self-employed and entrepreneurial.” Over 60% of vocational education graduates go on to some form of post-secondary education, and at least half of those go on to 4-year colleges, Campbell said.

Some students who would be good candidates for vocational education are steered away by school personnel, who, in a time of declining enrollments, are reluctant to let students transfer out of academic schools because they don’t want to lose state aid based on attendance. And because of the low-prestige image, parents balk at sending children who may want to attend, said Beverly Lydiard, assistant superintendent at Minuteman Tech.

“What kids have to go through to get here!” Lydiard said. “They have to campaign their parents to let them come, and start over with new friends, because their old ones don’t want to have anything to do with them.”

“We’re now beginning to see state governors, state legislators and superintendents of public instruction beginning to focus on vocational education so that these students can perform in a rapidly changing job market,” said Hayward at Berkeley.

“What is needed is an integration of academic education and vocational education so that students not only come out with a skill, but also have critical and analytical thinking ability so that when things change they can figure out how to adapt. It’s a growing movement, and a positive one, but it has a long way to go,” he said.