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Forget Free Community College, Obama! Here's a Better Plan: Bring Back Vocational High Schools

Yesterday, President Obama proposed that community college should be free for all American students.

"Put simply, what I'd like to do is see the first two years of community college free for everyone who's willing to work for it," Obama said in a video clip posted to Facebook, "That's right. Free for everybody who's willing to work for it." President Obama maintained that higher education is a "the surest ticket" to the middle class.

The free community college plan, which the White House estimated would cost the federal government about $60 billion over 10 years, is open to students who'd attend community college at least halftime and maintain good grades.

Critics pointed out that the cost is likely to be much higher. If the White House estimates of 9 million students partaking in the program every year and saving $3,800 in annual tuition is correct, the cost would be over $34 billion per year. Congress, which is now controlled by conservative Republicans, is also cool to the idea, with prominent members of the Republican party asking where the money would come from.

But politics aside, I think there's a better plan than free community college. Instead, we should bring back vocational high schools.

"College isn't for everyone," New York mayor Michael Bloomberg noted in his 2008 State of the City address, "education is." And he might be on to something: Northwestern University professor James E. Rosenbaum argued in his book, "Beyond College for All: Career Paths for the Forgotten Half," that the current educations system fails those who do not go to college and those who start college but do not finish by not adequately teaching practical skills that they'd need for getting jobs.

"Our friends in Germany know - as we should - that some students are bored by traditional studies," wrote Northwestern University Professor Harold Sirkin in Business Week, "Some don't have the aptitude for college; some would rather work with their hands; and some are unhappy at home and just need to get away. They realize that everyone won't benefit from college, but they can still be successful and contribute to society."

"Americans often see such students as victims," Sirkin added, "Germans see these students as potential assets who might one day shine if they're matched with the right vocation." Indeed, Germany has the system in place exactly for this reason: a dual education system where apprenticeship helps transition young people into full-time employment.

What do you think? Which is the better plan?




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Part of the problem here is that there are only so many teachers and only so many class slots. It would be great if high schools had summer classes anyone could take in their areas of interest, or if high school graduates could stay another year without charge in order to take vocational classes. Of course, that would cause funding problems, which is at the heart of all education dilemmas.
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One of the biggest regrets in my life was that by being so good at academic subjects, I wasn't allowed to take ANY vocational-type classes in middle or high school. I might be book-smart, but I prefer hands-on work. So I would argue that tracking is an underlying problem that wouldn't be helped by having more vocational high schools (although I do agree there should be more vocational courses available at the high school level).
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True, but they're not mutually exclusive: you can have vocational courses in community colleges as well as in vocational high schools. I suppose my point is this: college (including community college) isn't for everyone.

Some young graduates can't afford to go to college immediately after high school. Yet, without any practical training, these people are ill-equipped to look for high paying, specialized jobs and have to settle for minimum wage-type jobs.
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Most community colleges offer vocational courses. So by making them more available to people without the resources to go to either vocational school or college, you bring more opportunity for more people. Those with interests that align with the sort of work you'd get with a vocational background will be empowered as will those who wouldn't be happy in that role.
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The way I see it, we'd be doing a lot of our youth a huge favor if we offered them training and jobs in things like automotive repair, HVAC, and the like and not in made up Associate Degrees in women's studies et al.
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