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Time to trade in America’s broken education system for one that works

By David J. Ferreira and Chris Sinacola

President Biden is currently weighing a massive cancellation of federal student loan debt. It’s easy to see why. The nation’s total student debt load now exceeds $1.7 trillion.

The situation is even worse given that many student debt holders leave school without a degree – yet must still struggle for years to pay back their loans.

Moreover, it’s far from clear whether all this spending on higher education is providing our economy with the workers it needs. Even as the number of Americans with a college degree has risen, a range of vital industries — from construction and manufacturing to car repair — have seen the supply of qualified workers steadily shrink.

A long-running educational experiment in Massachusetts could point the way out of both these crises. The state’s extensive network of vocational-technical schools — or “voc-tech schools,” as they’re known — offers high school students a path to career success that doesn’t require an expensive four-year college degree.

By expanding this educational model to more states, policymakers could slash student debt while also addressing the skilled-worker shortage in some of the nation’s biggest industries.

That so many Americans are struggling to pay down student loan debt is evidence of a larger higher-education crisis. Today, it’s conventional wisdom that even a modest middle-class existence requires a four-year college degree. The perceived necessity of a college education has enabled institutions to charge increasingly exorbitant tuition. Student debt levels have risen in tandem.

At the same time, those who drop out of college without a degree, or never attend to begin with, are often condemned to low-paying jobs with few reliable paths to more gainful employment. This situation describes an enormous segment of the American workforce. By one estimate, more than 44% of the nation’s workers have low-wage jobs. Of those, just under half have a high school diploma or less.

Yet companies across the economy are in dire need of skilled workers. The manufacturing sector’s skilled labor shortage is on track to reach more than 2.1 million workers by the end of the decade, according to one recent study. Across the economy, some 4 million skilled positions sit unfilled right now.

In short, America’s current approach to higher education is failing everyone from debt-ridden college graduates to low-wage non-college graduates – and even understaffed businesses.

Massachusetts’s voc-tech model might offer a solution.

Unlike in traditional high schools, students in the Bay State’s 41 voc-tech schools spend half their time on academic work and half learning a technical trade such as automotive technology, carpentry, electronics, advanced manufacturing, or the culinary arts.

Far from detracting from academic performance, the hands-on component of voc-tech curricula actually complements and deepens student understanding of the liberal arts. In fact, students at voc-tech schools perform roughly on par with their peers from traditional high schools on state tests — even though they’re spending half as much time on academic instruction.

The dropout rate for students in the state’s voc-tech schools is one-third that for students in traditional high schools.

What this suggests is that students who graduate from voc-tech schools are just as prepared as their peers in purely academic schools to pursue a college degree. But voc-tech students also leave school with the technical know-how to begin a fulfilling, well-paying career in one of the many industries where skilled labor is in desperately short supply.

The result is an education model that serves the needs of students while also spurring growth and creating opportunity throughout the economy — something the status quo education system has failed to do.

There’s no reason the voc-tech model must remain exclusive to the Bay State. By following Massachusetts’s example, states across the country have a chance to trade in a broken, expensive approach to education for one that actually works.

David J. Ferreira is a career vocational technical teacher, coordinator, principal, and superintendent and served as executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators. Chris Sinacola is a former newspaper editor and the author of five books.

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