More students saying no to college, choosing vocational education

LEXINGTON, Mass. — Conventional wisdom has been a student needs to go to college to land a well-paying job.

The high cost of tuition and an abundance of job openings in many trades is causing more young people to say no to a traditional college experience.

Whether it’s learning to weld or how to wire a house, classes at Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Lexington are packed these days with students like Evan Long.

The Needham senior says he has good grades and has the option of going to college. Instead, he plans to start working as an electrician after he graduates from high school. “I just feel that’s the path that fits best for me.”

Long loves his co-op job and the fact that he’s already getting a decent paycheck.

“I know college costs a lot of money, student loans and stuff like that,” Long said. “To me, it looks like a lot of like a risk to go to college at this point. For me, everyone my whole life told me to go to college, go to college, go to college and it’s just like everyone does that. But no one does this.”

That may no longer be the case, however.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, undergraduate enrollment is down 3.2% this year. That is on top of a 3.4% plunge in 2020. This represents the largest two-year drop on record.

Gregg Cohen, president and founder of Campus Bound, an advisory service with offices thru out the Boston area, believes more people are doing a cost-benefit analysis of obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

“Even the majors students are checking on their applications: are they going to nursing; are they going for engineering; are they going for nursing? That seems to be the greater trend than the philosophy major,” Cohen added.

A recent study out of the Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Work Force found that learning technical skills can pay off.

It found that 16% of high school graduates and 28% of people holding an associate degree now make more than half of the people who have a bachelor’s degree.

“Really the game has changed,” said Tony Carnevale, Ph.D., the center’s director. “More and more, it doesn’t depend on going to college and getting your degree. . . what you make depends on what you take.”

Jobs like a respiratory therapist, an air traffic controller, a crane operation and an H-VAC technician all pay well and don’t require a bachelor’s degree.

Kathleen Bouchard, interim principal at Minuteman, believes vocational education is more valuable than ever. “Getting those skilled workers into the workforce is exactly what we need to get this economy up and running again.”

Minuteman is trying to keep up with the surge in enrollment.

“We’ve always said that vocational education is one of the best-kept secrets and now more people are finding out the secret,” Bouchard said.

A bill to expand and improve vocational education across the state is currently under review on Beacon Hill. It would pump about $3 billion into that system.

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