One of the ongoing challenges of modern higher education is balancing a foundational, liberal arts education with student, parent, and employer expectations for career preparation.
Most traditional academic programs, especially liberal arts subjects at the undergraduate level, aren’t designed with career development as a central purpose, although it’s clear that students need and want jobs after they graduate. Debates about the ROI of a college education often focus on anticipated salary after completing a degree.
In the past, students interested in continuing their studies after high school have had a choice to make – two-year job training through a vocational or technical school, or the four-year academic experience found at a college or university. Some community colleges now offer four-year degree programs in fields that prepare students for the workforce. These options, often referred to as vocational bachelor’s degrees, provide a new alternative for students interested in earning a college degree, but also developing job skills that lead to employment immediately after graduation.
Traditional vs. Vocational Degrees
A college education traditionally includes a curriculum divided into two primary components: 1) general education courses, which offer a broad perspective and experience in math and science, social sciences, arts and humanities; and 2) major courses, which allow students to gain more in depth exposure to a specific discipline of interest such as English, chemistry, psychology, or accounting.
Traditional degree graduates emerge with general skills related to communication, critical thinking, planning, and organization, as well as a knowledge base related to their major field of study. All disciplines and majors have the potential to incorporate career exploration, decision-making, and development opportunities. Some topics however make a more direct connection with the work environment students will enter after graduation.
A recent NPR article included advice for millennial students to consider careers in trades. When we think of vocational through an academic lens, thoughts of electricians, plumbers, and carpenters come to mind, but there are a lot of options including many science and technology roles. The fact is that these jobs pay well for those with the right training and skills. Vocational programs provide course work and hands-on experience that leads to employment in a specific field. Many programs are designed to meet the needs of employers in the school’s local area.
The AERES Evaluation Agency for Research and Higher Education, a French organization, reviews vocational bachelor’s degrees with an interesting list of criteria. These elements also describe what vocational-academic learning might be like:
- Project-Based Learning: Course assignments and activities are designed to prepare students for certifications in the field. Partnerships with local businesses and employers provide practical experience opportunities (e.g., internships, apprenticeships) that fulfill additional requirements for relevant and desirable certifications and licenses.
- Workforce Connection: AERES evaluations require a certain percentage of classes be conducted by professionals working in the field of study, as guest lecturers or in other roles that inform students about jobs and career development.
- Job Market Integration: These programs openly embrace the fact that students are interested in finding jobs after graduation, and incorporate current data about hiring trends and employer preferences in curriculum decisions. They also bring faculty members into the discussion about job market-curriculum integration.
- Program Leadership and Management: How are decisions made about programs that incorporate academic and career preparation goals? Who is involved in the process of establishing policies and procedures? AERES also wants to know how these programs collect feedback and use it to improve the learning experience and student outcomes.
Degrees, Degree Completion Programs, and Certificates
The traditional bachelor’s degree offers a broad approach and the development of general skills that employers are looking for, no matter the major. This can mean more flexibility for the student to find career opportunities across multiple industries. Having a bachelor’s degree may also be a requirement for advancing into management positions within various trades. The benefits of a two-year vocational program include skill development and preparation for a particular job or employment sector, often already identified as a hiring need in the local region. Two-year programs also allow students to enter the workforce faster so that they can begin earning and pay off student loans.
Vocational-academic programs may prove to be an option that brings together the best of both technical training and academic education. And there’s more than one way to proceed:
- Emerging bachelor’s degree programs like those coming to California’s community college system provide the four-year/technical option for those interested in beginning a new program with this combination of approaches in mind.
- Degree completion programs, such as the University of South Florida’s A.S. to B.S. program, are designed for people who already have technical associate degrees and want to complete general education and other coursework to earn a bachelor’s. In many cases these associate programs have been evaluated and articulation agreements are in place that allow them to be easily transferred in and counted toward bachelor’s degree requirements upon admission.
- Certificate programs, like those offered online by Southern New Hampshire University, are shorter in duration requiring fewer courses than a full degree, and provide yet another option for job skills training. According to a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, “one-third of certificate holders also have an Associate’s Bachelor’s, or Master’s degree. … One in three earned a degree first.”
So, should you pursue a traditional academic degree, vocational bachelor’s, two-year program, or technical certificate? One option isn’t inherently better or more valuable than another. Each student is different. What is your background as a learner? Do you want to be college student? What are your career goals? What are the hiring trends in the field you plan to enter – do employers expect or prefer a specific type of education, training, or experience?
Identify your priorities in terms of needs, expectations, and available resources, then research all of the available options. Don’t forget to determine the accreditation status of any program you are interested in pursing, and ask questions of admissions advisors and members of your own professional network.
A combination of academic and vocational curricula can help students reach their goals, whether they are new high school graduates, working professionals, or career changers. Have you mixed technical and traditional learning opportunities as part of your career development? Consider sharing your experiences and suggestions here.
Source: Inside Online Learning Blog