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Community colleges teach vocational skills–and a whole lot more

An advanced manufacturing lab at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey.

Perhaps Donald Trump hasn’t visited enough factories, auto repair shops or community colleges lately, because his comments Thursday to Republicans at a congressional retreat in West Virginia exhibited extraordinary ignorance of the modern economy and American higher education.

“When I was growing up, we had vocational schools,” Trump said, according to The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson. Recalling a classmate who wasn’t the “greatest student,” Trump said the student could repair cars blindfolded.

“We should have vocational schools,” Trump said. “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.”

As many observers noted on social media, Trump seemed to conflate many different sectors of the U.S. education system based on his own experience from more than a half-century ago. The old vocational education structure that he appeared to be talking about has changed drastically in the last three decades because it was often seen as outdated in a labor market that demanded higher-level skills and tracked students, often based on their race, ethnicity and income. The result was a new name and approach that emerged in the 1990s called “technical and career education.”

Now, even that concept is under scrutiny in a job market in which entire occupations are shifting rapidly and the knowledge to keep up in any of them is growing. Trump’s longtime rhetoric about trade and jobs fails to recognize the reality of today’s workplace with all jobs requiring some sort of education after high school.

Take a gas turbine plant in Charlotte, N.C., I visited in 2016, where all the workers have some post-high school education. Or Walla Walla Community College, in Washington state, which was named the top community college in 2013 by the Aspen Institute, and where John Deere pays students to train as technicians. Yes, a vocational training program at a community college, one of several that John Deere supports across the country. As Andy Winnett, who directs the John Deere program at Walla Walla told me on a 2015 visit, most John Deere tractors have a few dozen computers in them and require students with advanced skills to repair them.

In his comments, Trump seems to suggest not everyone is cut out for a bachelor’s degree, and he’s right that too often when Americans talk about college what they really mean is a four-year college. Even amid stories of students with bachelor’s degrees being underemployed, opportunities for those pursuing less than a four-year college education are booming.

Between now and 2024, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, the United States will be home to some 16 million openings for middle-skill jobs — those requiring more education than a high school diploma but typically not a bachelor’s degree. These jobs are in industries such as computer technology, health care, construction and high-skill manufacturing, and require yearlong certificates or two-year degrees — again, mostly earned at those “community colleges” people don’t understand. And sometimes, they pay more than a job that stems from a four-year degree.

Another key entry point for getting a good job: short-term training programs, increasingly offered by community colleges as non-credit “boot camps.” These programs teach students just enough to start a career, and have much higher completion rates, because students can see an end point of a few weeks instead of a few years.

As Michael Hoffman, executive director of continuing education at Des Moines Area Community College told me recently, his school’s 15 non-credit programs “put students in jobs where they ultimately want to be.” One such program is a network cabling class that helps students learn how to pull wires and is much shorter than the college’s traditional two-year degree in telecommunications — yet enables students to land jobs making $16 an hour with benefits. “Then, they can always come back to get the degree,” Hoffman said.

All that said, community colleges in the United States are not without problems. Only about 39 percent of students who enter community colleges graduate within six years. Some 80 percent of students who go to community colleges say they intend to transfer to a four-year college to earn a bachelor’s degree. But among those who started at a two-year college in 2010, only 9 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree six years later. And while some of those students may have earned an associate’s degree and never transferred, their two-year degree might have been in a field designed to lead to a four-year college and as a result has little currency in the job market. That’s why efforts by community colleges to push for short-term certificates and boot camps is a positive step to help students use their education to secure employment.

After the 2008 recession, the United States lost 1.6 million manufacturing jobs that required only a high school diploma. Since then, only 200,000 returned. Instead of having discussions about whether it’s better to call a community college a vocational school, the president should instead look for ways the federal government can broaden the definition of what we mean by college and encourage all high school students to pursue some kind of education beyond high school if they have any hope of succeeding in this economy.