Column: College isn’t for everyone (and that’s okay); it’s time to celebrate vocational skills


by Dr. Michael Hynes |

At some point, people in the U.S. decided as a whole that all kids should go to college.

I’m not sure how, when or why that happened, but it did. Those not heading to college were soon looked at as something less, and continue to be held in a lower regard.

Their unique skills, talents, dedication — anything that made these young people special — have been overlooked for decades now, their potential to contribute in our society stifled by the rest of us.

That’s because we have been fed a unhealthy narrative that leads us to believe if a student graduates high school and pursues the trades or the military they are destined for mediocrity. 

Tell that to my plumber and electrician who have made thousands of dollars in my home over the past several years and are some of the happiest and most fulfilled people I know.

When my wife, Erin, asks me to fix something in the house (actually she stopped doing that years ago), she knows I’ll proceed to break everything in the house — and then in the car.

I’m in constant awe of the talented and skilled professionals who can put everything back together again.

But these are the survivors.

What about all those young people who lost confidence in themselves and their abilities, simply because they weren’t heading to college?

Maybe they left a happy, fulfilling life on the table.

Anyone who knows me understands that I’m pro-education. But education in all forms.

The best path for most people should never be the most expensive, or what’s trending during any given time or place.

As Mike Rowe from the terrific show Dirty Jobs once said, “As long as the government is in the business of lending billions of dollars to college students, I’ll continue to challenge the idea that college is the only place to get a worthwhile education.” Amen to that Mike Rowe.

Take this, from an article published just last week in The Atlantic:

Today, the U.S. spends more on college than almost any other country, according to the 2018 Education at a Glance report, released this week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

All told, including the contributions of individual families and the government (in the form of student loans, grants, and other assistance), Americans spend about $30,000 per student a year—nearly twice as much as the average developed country.

“The U.S. is in a class of its own,” says Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the OECD. He does not mean this as a compliment. “Spending per student is exorbitant, and it has virtually no relationship to the value that students could possibly get in exchange.”

It’s that unyielding message of “college for everyone” at work.

The consequences are right in front of our faces.

As a nation we have less vocational classes in our high schools, over $1 trillion (with a T) of student loans and millions of jobs available that nobody is trained to perform in.

Millions of good-paying jobs are opening in the trades and in many cases, they pay better than what the average college graduate makes.

Our nation is grappling with a skilled labor shortage where thousands and thousands of blue collar jobs go unfilled because people lack the training or interest — often one has to do with the other.

It’s time we celebrate the students who attend BOCES vocational training, just as we would students who are pursuing rigorous AP or IB classes.  

It’s time we eradicate the negative social stigma of a young adult pursuing the trades as someone who should only do it if “college doesn’t work out.”

In a society that holds the financial analyst in higher regard than the mechanic, schools must begin to integrate Career and Technical Education into the school culture, into their school curriculum and into their school budgets.

Let’s provide multiple pathways for all students, so if a student wants to attend a trade school and then pursue a blue collar job, they are celebrated and valued as our college graduates.

And let them be encouraged by their parents, teachers, neighbors and peers.

I’m so thankful my school district in Patchogue-Medford has moved in the direction of housing its very own Career and Technical Education Program, because the baby-boom workers are retiring and leaving lots of openings for millennials.

Then they can turn to guys like me for a living each time we break something.

Sorry again, Erin.

Michael Hynes is the Patchogue-Medford School District superintendent and a monthly opinion columnist for GreaterPatchogue.

Photo: Michael Hynes at the 2018 Patchogue-Medford High graduation.