State education officials urge greater emphasis on two-year degrees

August 28, 2009

A common statistic that reveals the woeful educational achievements of Hoosiers is this: Only one in four holds a bachelor’s degree.

But just as alarming, if not more so, is this statistic: Only one in 12 Hoosiers has an associate’s degree.

That’s a big problem because nearly half of all jobs expected to be offered in the next decade and beyond will be middle-skill jobs—which require at least some post-secondary credential, like an associate’s degree, but not a four-year bachelor’s degree.

Such jobs include medical and electrical technicians, heavy-duty engine repairmen, skilled construction trade workers, and police officers and firefighters. Many once accepted workers with only high school diplomas, but no more.

Demand for workers in those fields will surge, the federal government predicts, as baby boomers retire. The jobs also face less competition from immigrants or workers in foreign markets. And, according to a February Brookings Institution report, the prospects for wage growth in some of the jobs are quite rosy.

But Indiana’s schools simply aren’t launching enough kids onto those career paths to fill the need.

“When you got up this morning, had your car not started, would you have gotten the phone book and looked in the Yellow Pages for Rhodes Scholars?” said Tony Bennett, Indiana superintendent for public instruction, during an interview in his cavernous office in the Statehouse. “The person who knows how to fix your car is the most important person in your life at that time, and you want the best.”


Eugene White, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, said the massive district has worked to expand career and technical options at its high schools—but sometimes students shy away from them because they think they must shoot for a four-year college degree.

IPS created a career and technical magnet program at Arsenal Technical High School, which now offers training in 15 careers ranging from architecture and auto mechanics, to cosmetology and computer repair.

But students have been slow to sign up for some of the programs, such as the newly created diesel engine repair, White said.

Tony Ramion, who is studying to be a police officer at Ivy Tech Community College, said he didn’t view vocational schools like Ivy Tech as a serious option.

“I kind of thought about Ivy Tech as a last resort,” said Ramion, 22, who graduated from Speedway High School in 2005.

After graduating, Ramion went to Ball State University for a year, but said he enjoyed his freedom too much and didn’t get good grades. That’s when he decided to pursue a public safety degree at Ivy Tech. And he changed his view about the students going to the school.

“People there are serious and are looking to better themselves,” he said. Ramion did an internship with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department this summer and is set to finish his degree in December.

Outdated skills

In addition to the stigma commonly attached to vocational programs, Bennett and the Indiana Department of Education see another problem: Skills taught by high-school-level career centers around the state often don’t match the up-to-date needs of employers.

“Too many of our current career and technical programs and courses teach content that is dying or already dead, and frequently doesn’t meet the needs of our state’s work force,” Cam Savage, a spokesman for the department, said in an e-mail.

To develop proposals to improve the situation, Bennett has turned to Carol D’Amico, the former executive vice president of Ivy Tech Community College and a former assistant secretary for vocational and adult education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Bennett hopes to publicize her recommendations later this year.

Making secondary career and technical education more responsive to industry needs may become increasingly important because not all middle-skill jobs hold out attractive economic prospects. Workers with specific skill sets stand to benefit most.

“Given the specific nature of the skills these jobs require, middle-skill occupations will continue to provide well-paying jobs for the workers who fill them—even if the broader labor markets around them are sluggish,” Harry Holzer and Robert Lerman wrote in a February report published by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution.

But the other issue is the rigor of career and technical education.

Too many high-school graduates are simply not prepared for higher education, whether they’re pursuing a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree, according to Indiana Higher Education Commissioner Teresa Lubbers.

“They have to be prepared enough that they don’t drop out their first semester or their first year,” Lubbers said, because once they drop out, it’s extremely difficult to lure them back.

Fewer than one in four students pursuing a two-year, associate’s degree at one of Indiana’s community colleges finishes in three years, according to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.

“They have to take their educations really seriously in order to prepare themselves for new jobs that haven’t emerged yet,” said Holly Zanville, a senior program director for the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based not-for-profit focused on improving education. “We know that many of the jobs, the living wage jobs, are going to require postsecondary education.”

Rigor required

High school principals, naturally, defend themselves against the insinuation that they aren’t preparing students well enough.

When it comes to career and technical education, they insist that the old days, when shop, ag and other “hands-on” classes became the path of least resistance for below-average students to graduate, are gone.

“It’s not workshop anymore. We’re not building birdhouses and rockets,” said Tom Galovic, principal at Whiteland High School in Johnson County. “They’re using computers. There’s a lot of technical focus.”

About 10 percent of Whiteland’s juniors and seniors are on a career and technical course of study, which typically takes them three hours a day to the Central Nine Career Center in Greenwood.

Galovic said the technical pathway is as rigorous as the college-prep track. Whiteland has pushed all its students to complete the Core 40 curriculum, which requires three years of high school math, three years of science, four years of English, and some foreign language.

The Core 40 standard will be required of all Indiana high school graduates beginning in 2011.

Whiteland also offers a technical honors diploma—which has even more rigorous requirements than Core 40. And the Central Nine Career Center works with Ivy Tech Community College to offer students both college and high school credit for the technical courses they take.

Galovic said a recent student had 21 college credits by the time she graduated. And he’s now trying to work with Ivy Tech to bring those “dual credit” courses to Whiteland’s campus itself.

Whiteland provides a good example for what Bennett would like to see more of. Unfortunately, he said, not all schools are doing those things.

And he wants schools like Whiteland to do more, like offering career and technical options earlier in high school—not just in the junior and senior years.

“We have to develop and promote and implement multiple pathways to success,” he said. “And a comprehensive career and technical education program is part of that.”•



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