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Blubaugh: Time to teach high school students college isn’t only path to success

Ignoring for a moment the hefty pricetag and quandary about financing it, the “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future,” otherwise known as the Kirwan Commission recommendations, have a lot of merit, particularly the emphasis on revamping high schools to provide more career and technical training.

Our school systems have been geared toward funneling every student possible into traditional, four-year colleges for decades now and it has left us with a generation of young adults in debt up to their mortar boards and a country facing a drastic need for skilled tradespeople.

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Yes, college graduates do tend to make more money. Emphasis on “graduates.” But a lot of the accompanying statistics are sobering.

Just 39% of 2010 Maryland high school graduates earned a degree by age 25, according to the Maryland Longitudinal Data System, which charts education and workforce data on each student in the state. Nationally, 30% of those who enroll at a four-year college don’t graduate within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

Meanwhile, 70% of construction companies nationwide are having trouble finding qualified workers, according to the Associated General Contractors of America. Companies can’t fill carpentry, electrical, plumbing, sheet-metal and pipe-fitting jobs even though many of them pay well -- some 30 million jobs in the United States that pay an average of $55,000 per year don’t require bachelor’s degrees, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.

Construction, along with health care and personal care, will account for one-third of all new jobs through 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the U.S. Department of Education reports that there will be 68% more job openings in infrastructure-related fields in the next five years than there are people training to fill them, according to NPR.

Yet parents keep reflexively sending kids who have no idea what they want to do off to college. According to a 2019 article in The Atlantic, traditional-college enrollment rates in the United States keep rising, from 13.2 million students enrolled in 2000 to 16.9 million students in 2016. That’s a 28% increase.

Guess what else is increasing. The cost of college. More than 200% in two decades.

Some $1.5 trillion in student debt is outstanding as of 2018, according to the Federal Reserve, and four in 10 adults under the age of 30 have student-loan debt, according to the Pew Research Center. Many of them feel ripped off. Technical education, on the other hand, generally costs much less and students enter the workforce two to three years earlier.

So, it’s quite possible someone who graduates from high school in 2020 and becomes certified for a trade might have made a couple hundred thousand by 2025 while that person’s classmate who enrolled in a four-year school might have $100,000 of debt,by 2025. Whether said classmate has earned a degree or not.

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We have to stop sending the message that the only path for a student is going to a four-year college immediately upon graduation. Roughly half of recent college graduates are working a job that doesn’t require a degree anyway, per The Atlantic. Each year, more people graduate law school than there are available legal jobs, finding that after seven or more years of expensive schooling they can’t find a position in their chosen field.

Kids need to see the value in skilled trades as they are growing up and be shown there are many paths to success, some of which include trade school and/or certification programs and/or community colleges. Many in our area already realize this — how many times have we heard the Carroll County Career and Technology Center rightly called a “gem” — but that understanding has to gain wider acceptance.

That’s where the Kirwan Commission recommendations come in.

“These changes will revamp the look, feel and results of high school for students," said Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association and a supporter of the recommendations on career technology, in a recent article in The Sun. "Students across the state will have the opportunity to balance their high school classes and activities with an apprenticeship or college classes so they can get a head start in their career or college studies.”

The Sun article noted that, under the Kirwan recommendations, those who pick the career path “would graduate with certifications and training needed to immediately walk into a decent-paying job," leaving high schools as master plumbers, nursing assistants and IT engineers, while those who pick the academic track "would be taking high-level classes and could enroll in community college courses, perhaps earning their associate degree by the time they leave high school.”

This isn’t about pigeonholing kids or limiting their opportunities. It’s about expanding opportunities.

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On this recommendation, and most others, Kirwan makes complete sense. Now, if we can just figure out a way to pay for it.

Bob Blubaugh is the editor of the Carroll County Times. His column appears Sundays. Email him at bob.blubaugh@carrollcountytimes.com.

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