Signs of peak higher education: the return of vo tech

How does America’s education system change, if we just passed peak higher ed?  One response might be a return to vocational technology curricula.

Consider: if the college world is starting to shrink, how will people learn skills for careers? The state of Minnesota has apparently decided to expand classic vo tech.  For example, one Democratic legislator makes the connection explicit:

“The leading voices have been the students and the business sector – students with their comments about crushing debt and job insecurity and industry with their complaints that they’re not able to fill the jobs that they currently have open,” said Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka and chair of the higher education committee.

It’s not just one state’s Democrats:

Although some state lawmakers have long advocated for vocational education, [Minnesota Commissioner of Higher Education Larry Pogemiller] said, Obama played a large role in raising its profile here.

shop class, 1960

Shop class, 1960

Again, education economics are crucial here.

State funding for higher education has declined dramatically in the past decade. According to MnSCU data, in 2002 the state covered more than 66 percent of students’ tuition. By 2012, that had dropped to about 40 percent.

So Minnesota leaders are becoming increasingly interested in working with industry, she said. They’re seeing it more as a partner — and potential source of education funding.

If education expands its vo-tech elements, what would that look like?  We can imagine a return to Cold War era shop classes in high schools, as in the above photo, but updated for current material and technological demands.   Community and technical colleges would enroll more students, and the liberal arts campuses fewer.  Certificate and two-year programs should expand in number.  Maker spaces would blossom in all kinds of areas, from public libraries to urban spaces.  Perhaps a cultural shift would become visible as fewer people look down on skilled trades.

Technology’s role would become complex.  Online education already supplies some vo-tech needs, and could easily expand.  Advanced technology skills may migrate into shop curricula – imagine teaching, say, metal working and 3d printing in the same class.  When will we see badges for HVAC?

That excellent MPR article concludes with a glimpse at one potential problem with this approach:

Dane Smith, president of the St. Paul think tank Growth & Justice, said he does support the expansion of vocational education. But he cautioned against making it the default option for low-income and minority students, who often don’t have the academic background of their middle- and upper-class white peers.

“We shouldn’t consign, relegate or give up too easily on the four-year potential of a lot of these students,” he said.

Smith’s analysis does match up with the possibility that education will echo American society as a whole, increasingly unequal and economically stratified.  Four-year undergraduate degrees could well become a clear sign of high status.

(link thanks to Jay Sieling on Twitter; photo by Cushing Memorial Library)

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2 Responses to Signs of peak higher education: the return of vo tech

  1. Steve Kaye says:

    Vo tech, but also company internships – I know the insurance industry (it’s always insurance with me) is working with colleges to establish programs, offering internships and job shadowing, etc.

    One Forbes writer was claiming shop classes were getting killed in high schools in 2012:

  2. Good point about internships. I wonder to what extent insurance is inspired by the German apprenticeship system.

    That essay reminds me of this:

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