Connor Associates recently partnered with national urban planners Kittleson and Associates to advise the City of Fort Lauderdale, Florida about educational options to consider as its population grows. The initial thinking was that the small planning area they were developing might call for a new independent school, which is why they contacted us for market research.
But the closer we examined the planning area, using both psychodemographic modeling and 2023 demographic projections, another option emerged that seemed a better fit. The option? Career and Technical Education, or what used to be known as “vocational” schools. The Fort Lauderdale region, including Palm Beach and Miami, is already well served by many fine independent schools.
Make no mistake. We're not talking about your father’s high school woodshop or welding classes you may recall when you hear the term “vocational.” In fact, you might as well drop the term "vocational." It's so 1920s, when these programs originated. It's now "career education" or "tech education."
Career and tech-ed schools are stirring interest these days because the greatest post-high school opportunity may not be the bachelor’s degree, which typically comes with suffocating debt. Many today question the value of a traditional four-year degree:
Depending on the field, up to 45% of recent college graduates are working in first jobs that don’t require a four-year degree, and even after five years of employment, half of them remain underemployed —college graduates who are in jobs that don’t require a college degree.
Value and affordability are major factors in the decision to attend these new career and technical schools. Broward County’s Technical Colleges’ “Career in a Year” initiative costs under $5,000 for most of the programs correlating to high skill, high wage, and high demand jobs. They offer more than 70 certificate programs for a broad range of careers, including architecture and construction; engineering, arts, A/V technology, communications; business management and administration; education and training; health science; hospitality and tourism; human services; information technology; law, public safety and security; public service, manufacturing; marketing, sales, and service; and transportation, distribution, and logistics.
Some of Broward County’s high school programs substitute traditional school electives for training in health fields, for example, and the possibility of getting industry certification for free.
Preparing students for four-year colleges has always been the primary focus of independent high schools. There are multiple benefits to a bachelor's degree that transcend career and technical training.
On the other hand, career and tech education has much to recommend it. Why not earn while you learn and possibly advance to owning your company? A student may not know where they want to go at age 18 or 21 but can get training to make a good living and then follow up with an undergraduate degree after he or she has a clear direction in mind and the motivation and income to achieve it without going so deeply underwater, just when they are trying to launch their lives. In fact, many students choose to go to university following certification from career development and technical colleges.
Education Week did a compelling study of this new educational trend toward career and tech-ed colleges. Published in May 2019, it deserves independent school leaders’ attention and discussion. These new era career and technical schools are building their academic muscle and are attracting more and more high achieving students—students independent schools want to attract as well. And these schools are already reaching down into elementary, middle schools, and high schools in their marketing and recruitment.
I’ve spent nearly half my life teaching in and promoting independent school education. Still, I’d advise our school leaders and trustees not to rule out career and technical education as irrelevant to us. In fact, we might want to think about recalibrating what we ourselves offer at the high school level.
I believe in the lifetime value of a liberal arts college degree, and in the excellent job independent schools do preparing students for college and life. But I wonder if another recession hits, or if independent schools can’t convince families of their enduring value while tuition continues to escalate, will this trend toward career and tech-ed turn out to be a tolling bell for some college-prep independent high schools?
Or might they present an opportunity for independent schools to consider another service and revenue stream that might broaden our traditional mission--and, in the process--build a bigger, more inclusive tent?