Joyce Judy, president of The Community College of Vermont, recalls a time when Americans could find good, well-paying jobs with just a high school diploma. "It's not true anymore," she counsels. "You have to keep your skills evolving and changing."
A number of studies, including one at Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research by Bridget Terry Long in 2013, point to the increase in community college enrollment as an outgrowth of the recession, stagnant unemployment and spiraling college debt. But even before the 2008 financial crisis, community colleges and vocational schools were stepping in to help America's workforce adapt to the changes brought by technology and globalization. Community colleges like CCV have made concerted efforts to improve student outcomes -- through direct career training as well as smoothing the path to a bachelor's degree.
Changing perceptions of vocational education
Vocational education, once the norm in America, has been pushed aside by the idea that every high school student should go on to a four-year college. One of the biggest barriers of entry into community colleges and vocational schools may be the perception that the education they receive is somehow less valuable.
Judy would argue this stigma is undeserved -- and changing. The Community College of Vermont serves a diverse student population, from recent high school grads to 20-year career professionals, as well as a number of the state's military veterans. "We meet students where they are at," she says, "and provide the kind of a foundation they need to launch to the next step." It is the kind of foundation that business leaders have told colleges they need, from solid writing to critical thinking skills. CCV has also introduced a STEM studies program to address the need for workers with a strong background in science, technology, engineering and math.
Making the case for vocational schools
Community colleges and vocational schools have some significant advantages -- starting with the cost. According to The College Board, the average published yearly tuition for in-state students at a public, two-year college was $3,131. Tuition at a public four-year college was nearly three times as high at $8,655. Out-of-state or private school tuition can eclipse $20,000 a year.
Another reason is post-graduation employment. "A degree doesn't guarantee a job," says Judy. "But, a degree opens up opportunities that you may not have otherwise had." Judy recently talked with a group of HR directors about the importance of completing a degree. Earning a degree may help demonstrate that a job applicant has the ability to set a goal and persevere, and it shows a strong work ethic. One HR director related a story of making two resume piles when hiring -- one pile for those with a college degree, the other for those without.
The statistics bear this out. In Judy's home state of Vermont, the unemployment rate is two points lower for someone with an associate degree and the median salary is over $11,000 or 36 percent higher than someone with only a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for a Competitive Workforce. Nationally, CNN Money reported in February 2013 that 30 percent of community college graduates earn more than those with bachelor's degrees.
Careers with salaries over $50K
To illustrate the point, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) highlighted 20 vocational careers with median salaries over $50,000 that require an associate degree. Nine of those were in health care. The majority of those were also projected by the BLS to have above average growth (over 11 percent) from 2012 through 2022 including:
- Dental hygienists clean teeth, screen for oral diseases, and perform preventive dental care. In May of 2013, they earned national annual median salaries of $71,110, and the job growth for this career is predicted to be 33 percent.
- Diagnostic medical sonographers conduct ultrasounds and imaging tests to help diagnose and treat illness and disease. Their national annual median salary was $66,410 in May of 2013, and job growth is predicted at 39 percent through 2022.
- Radiation therapists conduct ultrasounds and imaging tests to help diagnose and treat illness and disease. Their national annual median salary was $66,410 in May of 2013, and job growth is predicted at 39 percent through 2022.
Technology is another area offering jobs with a national annual median salary potential of over $50,000 and above average growth that may require only an associate degree.
- Computer network support specialists provide technical expertise, repair and maintenance for business networks. They earned national annual median salaries of $60,180 in May of 2013, and 17 job growth is predicted.
- Web developers opt for a more creative tech career with a national annual median salary of $63,160 and 20 percent job growth expected.
Then, of course, there are those careers that are traditionally associated with trade schools, not necessarily associate's degrees. Electricians, for example, take a number of hours of classroom training at community colleges or vocational schools while completing an apprenticeship. In 2013, their national annual median salaries were $50,510, and the BLS predicted 20 percent growth 2012 through 2022.
A path to the middle class
No amount of education or training can assure high pay or the promise of ever-lasting employment. But, as Vice President Joe Biden said in a speech at the 2014 American Association of Community Colleges annual convention, community colleges are "a trusted pathway to good jobs in the middle class." And, with vocational graduates assuming lower debt loads while gaining employable skills, he just may be right.