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College or technical education? Here’s why students need both

Last Updated on 24 March 2024

technical education

It’s a powerful advantage for young people: Career and technical education (CTE) prepares graduates with skills to enter the workforce directly after high school.

Students can avoid the expense of higher education and get head starts on careers. Data show that about 2.79 million students participated in secondary-level CTE nationwide in 2016-17, and more than 61,000 of them were in Massachusetts.

But it’s not time to dismiss a college degree.

Students still believe higher education can be a great complement to CTE. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that 74 percent of CTE students still expect their primary activity after high school to be postsecondary education.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, more than half of 2016 graduates from vocational-technical high schools pursued college directly after graduation, led by Blackstone Valley Vocational Regional where nearly 80 percent of graduates were pursuing college, above the state average of 76 percent for public high schools (including charters).

College is a solution for young people who need to advance quickly on the job and for companies that need skilled, educated workers with the potential to rise far beyond entry-level positions.

While technical knowledge is important, there are other 21st century job skills that are developed in college, which makes higher education a worthwhile investment. Many technical colleges find that programs combining technical training with general education, especially in the form of associate degrees, provide a great blend to help graduates not only land their first jobs but also to advance quickly.

‘Good apprentices are likely to make good citizens,’ Benjamin Franklin famously said. A college education builds on the basics from high school to prepare young people for career success, lifelong learning and citizenship.

College builds communication skills, and in the 21st century, almost all jobs, even technical ones, have a customer-service component. The need for clear communication can be even more acute for technical workers, who frequently interact with both internal and external customers who have less technical knowledge.

Technicians need to be able to listen and read to develop an understanding of customers’ needs. They should explain their work clearly and persuasively to those with both higher and lower levels of expertise.

English, humanities, and social science classes build these skills, as do projects and presentations in technical courses, where professors and peers provide feedback. A technical education also affords opportunities to practice these skills in groups, further developing teamwork skills.

All workers encounter problems on the job that they haven’t seen before and don’t know how to solve right away. College learning experiences are designed to foster troubleshooting, critical thinking, research and creativity to break down a problem into manageable components, apply past knowledge in new ways, find alternatives and seek help from others.

College faculty, alumni and industry partners are often practitioners and experts in the fields that technical college students are pursuing. These adults provide perspective, guidance and discipline — and, equally valuable, they form a network for students looking for jobs. The experts also shape curricula and ensure that students are building relevant job skills. Students benefit from workplace experience, from internships to real-world problems in the classroom.

Higher education provides opportunities for students to mature, both emotionally and professionally. Technical college faculty model the professional behavior expected in industry and reinforce workplace norms. Curricular and co-curricular activities support good job habits such as arriving on time, dressing properly and fitting in with a company’s culture.

Colleges can provide student support and career services to supplement the lessons of the classroom and laboratory, particularly in areas like job searching, resume preparation, interviewing and salary negotiation.

“Good apprentices are likely to make good citizens,” Benjamin Franklin famously said. A college education builds on the basics from high school to prepare young people for career success, lifelong learning and citizenship.

This story on higher education and career and technical education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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