Sam Johnson

Sam Johnson

The idea of college-for-all puts a lot of students in a bad position, because not all high school seniors have a firm grasp of the financial risk being taken – the average graduating college senior in 2017 was $28,650 in debt.

Students should fully understand the ramifications of incurring student loan debt and that there are other, less costly, post-secondary options. There are dependable careers, with attractive pay, that are attainable without a college degree, the training for which can be fostered by high schools via Career and Technical Education.

An electrician, for example, makes on average $50,977 a year in Texas.

With the skills gap and a shrinking middle class, businesses should be partnering with educators to prepare students, who might otherwise have no career path, for a career in skilled crafts and trades.

Not every person needs, wants or should go to college. Four out of 10 students who started college in the fall of 2012 had still not earned any degree after six years. When well-meaning adults pressure academically disinclined students to attend college, this advice can lead to a host of unintended consequences.

Students may drop out with sizeable student loan debt and no degree to show for it. In fact, students who take out loans to pay for college but do not complete a degree are three times more likely to default than those who do complete.

Compound that with little to no work experience, and their prospects for jobs that can pay the bills, put food on the table, and start chipping away at their debt are drastically diminished.

High schools can help academically disinclined students find more relevant and engaging studies by exposing them to non-college pathways into profitable careers in the skilled crafts and trades, such as HVAC technicians, plumbers, and electricians. These jobs are in increasingly high demand and pay well over the median salary, which – in Texas – is $37,009 per individual.

The pathways to these careers can start with Career and Technical Education (CTE) in high school. An important part of CTE programs is the hands-on approach, or work-based learning. It provides students with an understanding of the relevance of what they are learning. Instead of merely reading these abstract concepts from a book, they experience the application of the material firsthand.

Ideally, work-based learning would be an apprenticeship. However, there are some barriers that would prevent a student from working directly on the job with an electrician or a plumber, such as an age or degree requirement. For situations like that, students would receive training at a facility equipped for proper training. This training would be the result of a collaboration between subject matter experts – regional industry leaders – and educators.

An oft-overlooked side effect of this career-focused curriculum is the fostering of financial independence. Training students to be workforce ready is more than just teaching them how to weld or to understand the principles of electricity. Students can gain the ability to support themselves. The sense of purpose, direction, and independence that go along with having a well-paying career is not quantifiable in monetary terms – we all know that a sense of success brings meaning to life.

Monetarily speaking, it should be considered that for every upper level CTE course completed, a student (college-bound or not) receives a 2% higher salary – compared to students who do not take upper level CTE courses – every year once they enter the workforce.

For students who are academically inclined, CTE courses are still a good investment, even if they are planning to go to college. In fact, there is evidence that students who take upper-level CTE courses have an increased chance of graduating. And the students who choose to go directly into the workforce after high school would have likely dropped out before earning a college degree.

Industry leaders should jump at the opportunity to collaborate with educators. The businesses that need these jobs filled know the skill sets needed for employees to be successful in their jobs, and educators know how to help students learn. In other words, industry knows what needs to be taught and educators know how the facilitate that education.

In forging a partnership with schools or school districts, businesses can affect human capital while educators can prepare students for a successful career and a fulfilling life.

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Sam Johnson is a legislative fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

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