When a High School Diploma Beats a College Degree


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If you're a parent who's never heard of career high schools, check them out – they might lead to a high-paying career with zero student loan debt.

A person I met awhile back asked, with what seemed a disapproving tone,  why I “let” my oldest son become a plumber.

I guess I could understand the question, if not the snobbery.  I’m an English teacher with multiple degrees, my daughter is on the verge of getting her master’s in nursing, and my youngest son is currently attending a prestigious private university.  Nonetheless, when she asked the question, I looked at her as if she had just grown scales and a leathery tail.

With my eldest son’s wage and benefits package totaling about $100 an hour, becoming a member of a powerful construction trade may have been a far wiser goal for him than earning the typical Bachelor of Arts in liberal studies.  Better yet, learning to be a tradesman can start in your local high school for no extra payment.  In fact, hands-on or blue collar occupations may be a teenager’s ticket onto the fast track of success.  Just ask my son, the plumber.

With the current emphasis on advanced education, parents naturally focus on their children’s academic achievement in a traditional college preparatory environment.  As a teacher, I’m all for that for the right student.  But my experience working at a career high school (think vocational school) has taught me that parents may be overlooking a powerful choice within the free public education system available to some high school students.  Choosing to attend a career education high school that prepares students for a well-paying job immediately upon graduation comes with nice benefits.

Here’s what many people don’t know about high school career education…

1. It’s often cheaper for the same results

If your student decides after high school that they don’t want to go to college and want to learn a trade instead, you’ll pay many thousands of dollars for what you could have gotten for free from your local public career high school.

For example, completing the 1,000 hours needed to sit for the New York State Appearance Enhancement licensing exam can cost more than $15,000 at a for-profit, post-high-school beauty school. The same goes for programs as diverse as medical assisting, nurse assisting, and physical therapy aide.

At some career high schools, students can earn those licenses free. Certain schools even offer personal training and aviation operations classes.

2. Businesses recruit high schoolers just like they do college students

Career high school students are offered internships at actual work sites as part of their program. Car dealerships, restaurants, and hair salons post job openings and even visit classes to meet prospective employees. And many programs (such as nurse assisting) actually include the state certification exam as part of the curriculum.

3. Attending a career high school increases a student’s chance of graduating

According to several reports, including this one (.pdf), career education students graduate at higher rates than regular public school students. Students are motivated by hands-on learning that actually lets them do the trade. Even the most reluctant students want to complete their programs so they can receive the piece of paper that certifies their expertise. My son wouldn’t pick up a copy of The Great Gatsby, but he mastered the manual of plumbing skills.

4. Career high schools meet high-quality industry standards –and academics

Just because you’re not in regular high school doesn’t mean academic learning stops. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and auto mechanics all need science, math, and language skills. Math, science, and English teachers (like me!) work with the career teachers to imbed academic learning standards into all the classes.

5. Some high school career programs offer “college articulation agreements”

This means your high school student can graduate with several college credits that can be applied to earning a college degree later. Many trade  unions also give credit to students who complete the high school program – usually a year or two toward their apprenticeship programs.

So maybe it’s time to lay off the intellectual elitism. Just because the traditional college experience is right for some doesn’t make it right for all, especially in light of its terrific cost. In short, alternative high school programs aren’t for losers. Check out your local career education high school. It may be your child’s ticket to success.

Stacy Johnson

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