Research & Commentary: Policymakers Begin Looking at College Prep Alternatives for Education

Published August 3, 2017

For decades, high school students have had it repeatedly reinforced in their minds the only way to make a good living is to go to college to get a four-year degree. This mindset has led to surging tuition costs, skyrocketing student loan debt, a large number of dropouts with nothing to show for their efforts but that student loan debt, and a glut of graduates flooding job markets that are already saturated with other young workers.

Now, it seems as though the pendulum is finally shifting, as both federal and state policymakers are looking at ways to guide students into career technical education (CTE). CTE, also called “vocational education,” prepares students in trades and crafts, of which apprenticeship programs can be a key part.  

The U.S. Department of Labor reports there were over 21,000 registered operational apprenticeship programs in 2016, with roughly 500,000 people taking part in a paid apprenticeship and 49,000 people graduating from one. The Wall Street Journal notes “nine in 10 Americans who complete apprentice training land a job,” with the average starting salary for those completing an apprentice program at $60,000 per year. Despite these advantages, only 5 percent of young Americans participate at some point in an apprenticeship program.

The Trump administration issued an executive order on June 15 declaring “it shall be the policy of the Federal Government to provide more affordable pathways to secure, high paying jobs by promoting apprenticeships and effective workforce development programs, while easing the regulatory burden on such programs and reducing or eliminating taxpayer support for ineffective workforce development programs.”

Shortly thereafter, the Apprenticeship and Job Training Act of 2017 was introduced in the U.S. Senate. This act would provide a tax credit for employers who expand an existing apprenticeship program or create a new one.

In a report released in July 2017 by Advance CTE and the Education Strategy Group, researchers measured career readiness in the first 16 states to submit Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plans. They found only 11 of those state plans are taking advantage of new approaches for CTE. Illinois and Vermont, for example, will include a “College and Career Readiness” indicator in its accountability system, while Delaware and Louisiana will give high school students course credit for earning an industry credential.

While Kentucky has yet to submit an ESSA plan, it is one of only a small group of states that has a “career-ready” designation separate from “college-ready.” Pennsylvania recently enacted legislation to allow more students to opt out of the state’s Keystone Exams for a high school diploma if they “demonstrate readiness through industry-based skills assessments or certificates.” Michigan created the Michigan Career Pathways Alliance, which will “assist students in finding and understanding technical career pathways through several initiatives including curriculum changes, adding resources within school districts and increasing collaboration between educators and employers.”

“We have to change the current perceptions of what it means to have a ‘good job,'” said TV host and philanthropist Mike Rowe, who has become one of the nation’s most outspoken advocates for vocational training. “With respect to job satisfaction, a lot of well-intended parents and guidance counselors have done a great disservice to hundreds of thousands of millennials by pushing them toward a four-year degree. It’s a cookie-cutter approach to education, and it’s causing massive problems, including a $1.3 trillion [student loan] debt, a widening skills gap, and soaring tuition costs.”

Policymakers should give students more choices when it comes to their educational options by allowing students to have access to career and technical training opportunities. Doing so would not only help students find good-paying jobs, it would help to improve the United States’ economy for decades to come.

The following documents provide more information on CTE and apprenticeship programs.

Career Readiness & the Every Student Succeeds Act: Mapping Career Readiness in State ESSA Plans – Round 1–the-every-student-succeeds-act-mapping-career-readiness-in-state-essa-plans—round-1
This brief from Advance CTE and the Education Strategy Group examines career readiness in the first 17 states to create Every Student Succeeds Act plans. The researchers found while more than half the states studied plan to adopt measures of career readiness in their accountability systems, many states missed an opportunity to fully leverage ESSA to advance a statewide vision of career readiness.

Will Robots Make Job Training (and Workers) Obsolete? Workforce Development in an Automating Labor Market
This report by Harry J. Holzer of the Brookings Institution argues that despite the rise of automation technology, there will remain a large number of middle-skill jobs available in the coming decades. Thus, Holzer reasons skills-development programs for students, paid for by provider and industry partnerships, could have a lasting impact on earnings.

State Policies Impacting CTE: 2016 Year in Review
This paper is the fourth annual review of CTE and career-readiness policies in the states and territories produced by Advance CTE. In 2016, 42 states carried out a total of 139 policy actions relevant to CTE, including laws, executive orders, board of education actions, budget provisions, and ballot initiatives, an increase compared to 2015 activity.

CTE State Profiles
This database maintained by the Association for Career & Technical Education is a useful tool for policymakers, business, and media looking for information on each state’s CTE system.

Opportunities for Connecting Secondary Career and Technical Education (CTE) Students and Apprenticeship Programs
This report, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, profiles eight secondary apprenticeship programs to identify strategies to connect CTE with apprenticeship programs. The report classifies each program as an apprenticeship, youth apprenticeship, or pre-apprenticeship and maps each program by the degree of instructional alignment and program articulation. To help state and local policymakers learn from practices in each of the profiled sites, the report outlines key takeaways and recommendations for program design, program effectiveness, student-parent engagement and communications, financing, and equity and access.

The Value and Promise of Career Technical Education: Results from a National Survey of Parents and Students
Advance CTE, with support from the Siemens Foundation, commissioned focus groups and a national survey to explore the attitudes of parents and students currently involved in CTE, as well as prospective CTE parents and students, to better understand the promise and opportunity these programs provide.  


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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