President Trump said Thursday that community colleges should be called “vocational schools” because “a lot of people” don’t really know what community college “means or represents.” The first problem with the suggestion: The two are not the same thing. The second problem: A lot of people do know what community colleges offer to Americans.
Trump was speaking to Republican members of Congress at a congressional retreat at a West Virginia resort when the issue arose. Here’s what Post reporter Jenna Johnson reported him as saying:
But the economy is so strong now, and so good, and so many companies are moving in that I really believe that that problem — it’s a big problem — is going to solve itself, but we’re working on it.
We can invest in workforce development, job training and open new vocational schools, because we want every American to be able to reach their full, God-given potential.
Vocational schools — today, you have community colleges and you have all of the — when I was growing up, we had vocational schools. And when I was going to school, I remember I was in high school, and there were people in class, one person in particular, he wasn’t like the greatest student. And he just wasn’t. And yet I saw him one day, and he was able to fix a car engine blindfolded. And everybody else was saying that’s amazing how talented he is. He had a different kind of a talent, and we should have vocational schools.
You learn mechanical, you learn brick laying 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.
So we’re working very hard on vocational schools, so when all of these companies move into this country, we’re going to have a workforce that knows exactly what they’re doing.
In addition to that, when they move in we’re giving them incentives to also train people themselves. Because in many ways, that’s the best way to do it.
In Wisconsin, we have a great company moving in. They make all of the Apple iPhones. And they’re going to have a big program. They’re going to have a tremendous program to teach people how to do this, because it’s a whole new skill. And it’ll be very successful.
Trump may think the word “vocational” is a better way to describe a community college — but, in fact, the two are not interchangeable. They simply aren’t the same thing.
Vocational, or trade schools, have traditionally offered hands-on training related to a particular career, often but not exclusively in high school. The length of vocational programs varies, and they usually require internships.
Two-year community colleges provide many of the same features as four-year colleges, including wide curricular offerings in different subjects and, sometimes, clubs and sports events. Many students get a two-year community college degree — with a core curriculum — and then transfer to a four-year college for a bachelor’s degree. They can save a lot of money along the way, because community colleges are inexpensive compared to four-year schools.
In fall 2016 — the latest year for which figures are available — 6.2 million students were enrolled in two-year community colleges, the vast majority public institutions, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. That represented 36 percent of all undergraduate students in the United States at that time.
When Trump said, “A lot of people don’t know what a community college means or represents,” it sounds like he belongs in that group.
There is another problem with Trump’s characterization of vocational education — whatever he wants to call it. His description presents a narrow view at a time when experts in the field say the very definition of vocational education needs to expand. Mike Rose, a research professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, has written extensively about this subject, including the book “The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker.” He wrote in a previous Answer Sheet post:
Under President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, education will likely be defined in functional and economistic terms — as preparation for the world of work. Vocational education will be reduced to narrow job training, a limited kind of education that has, sadly, characterized VocEd at times in its past, but that a lot of people have been working against over the last few decades. . . .
Intellectual suppleness will have to be as key an element of a future Career and Technical Education as the content knowledge of a field. The best CTE already helps students develop an inquiring, problem-solving cast of mind. But to make developing such a cast of mind standard practice will require, I think, a continual refining of CTE and an excavation of the beliefs about work and intelligence that led to the separation of the academic and the vocational course of study in the first place.
Of course, students will learn the tools, techniques, and routines of practice of a particular field. You can’t become proficient without them. But in addition, students will need to learn the conceptual base of those tools and techniques and how to reason with them, for future work is predicted to be increasingly fluid and mutable. A standard production process or routine of service could change dramatically. Would employees be able to understand the principles involved in the process or routine and adapt past skills to the new workplace?
This is the second time this week that Trump brought up vocational programs. In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he said: “Let us open great vocational schools so our future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential.”
Despite his stated enthusiasm for vocational training, his first proposed budget last year sought $168 million in cuts to grants that fund career and technical education programs in high schools. Congress balked at most of that request.
In his Tuesday address, Trump barely mentioned the words “schools” or “education” and uttered “college” once, in a passing mention of “college savings accounts.” As Post education reporter Nick Anderson succinctly chronicled on Twitter: