Does the renewed push for voc ed sell low-income students short?

Vocational education and apprenticeships are no substitutes for college and raise concerns of social and economic justice.

Image credit: Getty

Michael Lomax was in his teens, growing up black in Los Angeles in the late 1950s and early 1960s when he set his sights on college – not an unreasonable ambition for the son and grandson of college graduates.

But the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) had other ideas. Based on the neighborhood where Lomax’s family lived, it assigned him to Manual Arts Senior High School. “In ‘50s-‘60s Los Angeles, a relatively progressive community,” Lomax recalls, “race and zip code defined academic opportunity. If you were black and living in the ‘wrong’ neighborhood, you were prepared for being a manual laborer. And if you were living in another neighborhood, you were prepared for going to college.” He had to claim residence with his grandfather to enroll at the academically oriented Los Angeles High School.

Lomax’s vision of his potential proved more accurate than LAUSD’s: he not only went to college but graduated from historically black Morehouse College (Martin Luther King Jr.’s alma mater), received master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia and Emory Universities, respectively, and went on to become a college professor and president and then president and CEO of UNCF, the United Negro College Fund—where I have worked, on staff and under contract, for almost ten years.

“Positioning career and technical education and apprenticeship as a fallback for those who aspire to college but can’t afford it raises concerns of both economics and social justice.”
More than a half-century later, there’s new interest in industrial apprenticeships and “career and technical education (CTE),”as vocational education is now called, for those who can’t afford a four-year college education. Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, advocates vocational training for those who “do not have the time or money to pursue a traditional education.” And the Center for American Progress recommends apprenticeships for millennials facing “rising college costs and spiraling student debt.”

America’s industrial base needs an increasingly well-trained workforce, and well-paid employment in manufacturing is still a strong career option for those whose abilities and aspirations run in that direction.

But positioning CTE and apprenticeship as a fallback for those who aspire to college but can’t afford it raises concerns of both economics and social justice.

For one thing, college graduates earn more – as much as 70 percent more than their peers with only high school diplomas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and 50 percent more than those with community college associates degrees. By itself this is a sure sign that it is not just students who need college, but the economy that needs college graduates.

College graduation is also a necessary-but-not-sufficient ticket to the middle class. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce reports that “Dropouts, high school graduates and people with some college but no degree are on the down escalator of social mobility, falling out of the middle-income class and into the lower three deciles of family income.”

Worse yet, this expanding sub-middle class, which includes the low-income students whom apprenticeship advocates would channel into vocational training, is, by virtue of coming from low-income families, disproportionately black and Hispanic: those two groups represent 26.3 percent of the overall workforce but 37.7 percent of the poverty-wage workforce, a difference of over 40 percent.

That trend line collides with another: With the country’s population trending majority-minority by about mid-century, many of the college-necessary jobs the country will need to fill—replacing retiring baby-boomer teachers, engineers, doctors and nurses; and filling the new kinds of jobs the evolving economy will create—will need to be filled from the ranks of Americans of color, exactly the cohort that the CTE and apprenticeship proposals would channel away from college and toward industrial employment.

For employers seeking to fill college-necessary jobs, these intersecting trends will shrink the pool of qualified applicants.   And low-income minority students seeking to cross the bridge to the middle class will find the bridge raised and themselves stranded on the wrong side.

And yet, given the numerous and formidable obstacles that separate low-income minority students from fulfilling their college aspirations—high and increasing tuition, high and increasing student debt, the decrease in the availability and purchasing power of federal student aid programs like Pell Grants and Parent PLUS loans – might not CTE or an apprenticeship, especially if these opportunities come with community college credits for academic courses, be a better choice for many of them? Might not industrial-oriented post-secondary education be better than no post-secondary education at all?

Perhaps—if those were the only choices. But instead of compromising with or surrendering to the obstacles that keep qualified low-income students from going to college, why not determine to overcome them?

Why not, for example, restore the purchasing power of the largest federal low-income student aid program, Pell Grants, which now, according to the non-profit Institute for College Access & Success, covers the smallest share of the cost of attending a public college since the start of the program 40 years ago? By restoring Pell Grants’ purchasing power to its original level, which covered between 69 percent and 84 percent of tuition costs at the average state school, we could not only offer college opportunities to qualified students, but take a bite out of student debt burdens.

And after almost ten years at UNCF, I would be remiss if I did not mention the country’s 105 public and private historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), 37 of which are members of UNCF. Founded when black students had few other college options, HBCUs have evolved to serve 300,000 students a year, many of them first-generation college students from low-income families.

And while critics have targeted the low graduation rates of some HBCUs, UNCF’s research arm, the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute has found that among the low-income students whose education is HBCUs’ core mission, they out-perform the graduation rates of many other institutions, and at tuition levels that are 26 percent higher than those of IPEDS-selected comparable schools. And the Washington Monthly ranks eight HBCUs in the top third of its liberal arts college ratings.

Finally, I am not suggesting and have no reason to believe that those who advocate apprenticeships and CTE as post-secondary alternatives for low-income families and students are motivated by anything other than the best interests of students eager to make their way in the 21st century economy. I suspect that the LAUSD officials who slated Michael Lomax for Manual Arts High School thought they too were acting in their students’ best interests.

But I think often of something I heard when I accompanied UNCF President Lomax to a televised debate about whether the country and economy need more college graduates. It was before the cameras rolled, and the moderator, Paul Solman of the PBS NewsHour, was prepping the debaters and playing devil’s advocate. As he was thinking about the subject in preparation for the debate, he said he had started wondering if maybe there were enough college graduates after all and that maybe not everyone needed to go to college.

Lomax looked up from the notes he was reviewing and quietly answered Solman’s rhetorical question with one of his own: “Is that the advice you would give to your own children and grandchildren?”

Louis Barbash is a Washington D.C. writer and former National Director for Communications and Brand Strategy of UNCF (the United Negro College Fund). He blogs at Connecting-the