WASHINGTON — President Trump’s calls this week for more vocational schools have received a lukewarm reception from the higher education community, including from the educators who teach in the programs he is championing.
The president first raised expanding vocational education in his State of the Union address on Tuesday — the only nod to education policy in the speech — as a work force development strategy. On Thursday, Mr. Trump expounded on the proposal, asserting that efforts to teach students trades had diminished since he attended an elite military boarding school, where he said he had a classmate who wasn’t the “greatest student” but “was able to fix a car engine blindfolded.”
“He had a different kind of a talent, and we should have vocational schools,” Mr. Trump said during a speech at a Republican congressional retreat in West Virginia. “You learn mechanical, you learn bricklaying and carpentry and all of these things. We don’t have that very much anymore. And I think the word ‘vocational’ is a much better word than in many cases, a community college. A lot of people don’t know what a community college means or represents.”
Policy experts and organizations that advocate the trade programs — which for more than a decade have been recognized as career and technical education, or C.T.E. — took issue with the president’s antiquated characterization of a sector of higher education that has expanded beyond laborers who are not cut out for academia.
The Association for Career and Technical Education, which represents 25,000 such educators and professionals in secondary and postsecondary programs, said that Mr. Trump failed to recognize the critical ways that the schools had evolved.
The programs serve thousands in secondary schools, and millions of students in more than 1,600 two-year colleges. They encompass a broad range of trades, like health science, information technology and business management, and in many cases, are an off-ramp to four-year colleges and universities. The group also noted that career and technical education students tend to have lower dropout rates and are more likely to graduate on time.
“High-quality C.T.E. programs are thriving,” the organization said in a statement. “The biggest barrier to their continued success and the opportunity for more students to access their programs are funding cuts, including a proposed 15 percent cut in the president’s own fiscal year 2018 budget to C.T.E. programs.”
Mr. Trump’s speeches may have been more like a rhetorical appeal to the base that elected him, particularly blue-collar workers, than a policy proposal.
But the president’s comments teetered on being “characteristically ignorant,” said Mike Rose, a research professor at the U.C.L.A. Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and the author of “The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker.”
“The danger is we tend to view these young people who are drawn to these programs in very deficient ways,” Mr. Rose said. “They value intellectual pursuits. They’ve watched industries die in their communities and know the danger of not being able to adapt to other kinds of work.”
Mr. Trump’s emphasis on bolstering the role of education in work force development has been largely embraced by education leaders across the country, many of whom are looking to Congress to reauthorize some parts of the Higher Education Act to meet the job demands of the future. Already, through a House bill, members of Congress have made clear their goals to overhaul the law governing higher education to be more responsive to six million unfilled jobs.
The Career Education Colleges and Universities praised Mr. Trump’s mention of work force development and job training in his State of the Union address, as did Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
“America must do better to prepare our students for success in the 21st-century economy,” Ms. DeVos said in a statement after the president’s speech. “I join the president in calling on Congress to act in the best interest of students and expand access to more education pathways.”
But policy experts also said that Mr. Trump’s suggestion that vocational education was the silver bullet to the country’s work force deficit was misguided.
Michelle Asha Cooper, the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, noted that labor economists estimated that in 2020, of the millions of jobs created, two-thirds would require postsecondary degree.
“While bricklayers are an important part of our labor market, I think we have to recognize that vocational schools are not going to solve our work force needs alone,” Ms. Cooper said. “It’s not a purposeful discussion to say vocational schools can do it all, because statistically, it cannot be done.”
Community colleges were also on the defensive after the president’s remarks.
The role of community colleges was crystallized in 1947, when President Harry Truman ordered a Presidential Commission on Higher Education to re-examine the higher education landscape after veterans came home from World War II to find traditional colleges crowded.
“The name used does not matter, though ‘community college’ seems to describe these schools best,” the commission wrote. “The important thing is that the services they perform be recognized and vastly extended.”
In the 1960s, Portland Community College answered that call, its president, Mark Mitsui, said.
The school covers 1,500 square miles and serves 76,000 students over four campuses. Students from high schools can enroll, but the average age of the student body is 29 because the school serves a range of functions, like allowing students to take a traditional college curriculum that affords them transfers to Ivy Leagues or offering basic skills and English-language courses.
Its graduates include the author Rebecca Skloot, who wrote the best-selling book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
“We respond to the needs of our community, and the community’s needs are complex, so we want to be as comprehensive as possible,” Mr. Mitsui said. “I think our communities do know what we do and represent. There are a lot of bridges in Portland, and we are a bridge to opportunity.”
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