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Guest Blog: Don’t Make Students Choose Between Academic or Vocational Education

In a decade of studying education across countries, a key thing I’ve learned is that we do a great disservice to students when we force them to choose between academic and vocational education.

A new report by John Winters and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently reminded me of this truth. It shows that workers across the United States make far more money when they have four-year degrees, a phenomenon Winters calls the “college earnings premium.” But it also finds that, in many American cities, workers with only associate degrees earn middle-class wages.

Similarly, my research examines the large differences that exist in options for the majority of students who will not complete a four-year degree. In the United States, the conversation about postsecondary education is largely consumed with questions about the share of students prepared for the rigors of college and what types of vocational programs ought to be provided for those who aren’t. My work on vocational education in Germany and Austria shows that the binary choice between college or technical training is not only outdated but potentially harmful for students.

In these European countries, young people traditionally faced an earlier choice of whether to pursue a “vocational” pathway or an “academic” college preparatory track. But now, more and more options exist to mix vocational and academic pathways. For example, while young people in Germany are increasingly turning toward the Abitur, which is the academic high school diploma, many also pursue apprenticeshipsaftercompletion, and top companies tend to recruit apprentices from the academic pathway.

Likewise in Austria, adolescents have the option of attending vocational high schools (berufsbildenden höheren Schulen or BHS), which are schools for fourteen- to nineteen-year-olds, but they could be better described as “vocational colleges.” That’s because they offer specialized instruction and equipment and confer a postsecondary vocational qualification, as well as an academic high school diploma. These hybrid pathways—combining elements of academic and vocational education—enable young people in Germany and Austria to obtain a good salary without a bachelor’s degree. 

A key to understanding these hybrid options is that they develop both general and occupationally specific skills, and their quality is reinforced by reliance on external assessments. Through these pathways, students pursue qualifications, including an academic diploma as well as federally recognized, exam-based vocational qualifications, which certify each of those types of skills.

Interestingly, when I examined enrollment across different pathways, I observed differences for various types of communities. Specifically, over the past two decades, while urban centers—and most specifically large, international cities—have been leading the march toward more academic education in these countries, students in rural areas continue to pursue more vocational options, but increasingly through these hybrid pathways. Similarly, the Fordham Institute report also shows that the college premium in rural areas of the United States is lower, which raises questions about whether young people in those areas might stand to benefit from more access to hybrid pathways, including industry certifications.

If getting a bachelor’s degree starts to look like a waste of time and money in those places where the premium is very low, it is important that students have viable alternatives. It might help if we think about such alternatives as opportunities to develop both occupationally specific and general-education skills and then certify their acquisition. The United States does not have a good system in this respect: high school graduates wanting to acquire a strong signal of both their occupational and academic skills have little recourse.  Performing well on Advanced Placement tests and college-entrance exams signals strong academic abilities. Performing well in an apprenticeship signals strong occupational skills, but to embark on an apprenticeship typically means opting out of challenging academic pathways. This conundrum stands in contrast to the German-speaking countries, where hybrid pathways are strong mechanisms for signaling both academic acumen and relevant knowledge for a specific industry.

Fortunately, there are some schools and pioneers of new education models that are offering innovative hybrid pathways in the United States. For instance, Linked Learning, a high school reform strategy that began in California in 2009 and has since expanded to several other states, intentionally integrates career and technical education and work-based learning with rigorous academics. P-TECH high schools in a few parts of the United States offer a pathway to an associate’s degree resembling Austria’s vocational high schools. Students take high school and college course work simultaneously and engage in industry-guided workforce development. As the P-TECH website describes

P-TECH schools span grades 9–14 and enable students to earn both a high school diploma and a no-cost, two-year postsecondary degree in a STEM field…. Upon graduation, students have the academic and professional skills required to either continue their education in a four-year postsecondary institution or enter into entry-level careers in IT, healthcare, advanced manufacturing and other competitive fields. While the P-TECH Model encompasses six years, students are able to move at their own pace, enabling some to accelerate through the model in as little as four years. P-TECH serves students from primarily underserved backgrounds, with no testing or grade requirements.

Early research shows that this is a promising model. Moreover, organizations like Credential Engine and the National Skills Coalition are helping to ensure that young people make better choices about how to certify their skills.  

Still, the application of European education models to the U.S. context has limits. The hybrid options in Germany and Austria are selective: one-third of adolescents never get the opportunity to start a hybrid pathway, and no more than half of each youth cohort ever completes the academic diploma. In other words, even systems with multiple pathways still leave many students behind, and selection policies are even more fraught in the United States where they tend to reinforce and institutionalize longstanding racial inequities.

Unfortunately, there is no country in my opinion that has completely solved the problem of a “forgotten half” (or at least a “forgotten third”). In the German-speaking countries, gone are the days when an apprenticeship could provide a pathway into well-paid work for a student who had failed academically. Those apprenticeships are scooped up by students who have academic diplomas. Hybrid options can be a way to enable the development of both general and occupationally specific skills, but they can’t make up for inequities that emerge earlier in life or outside the school system.

Amelia Peterson is a fellow in social policy at the London School of Economics, program director for the Global Education Leaders’ Partnership and a facilitator of the Big Change global network.