Home Teacher News Why pushing kids to focus on college isn’t always the answer

By Ann Zaniewski, Detroit Free Press

Nov. 15–Edgar Sedano-Rodriguez has wanted to be a firefighter since he was 12.

The Pontiac man just finished 10 weeks of training at the fire academy at Oakland Community College in Auburn Hills. After passing his exams, he can launch his career — no bachelor’s degree needed.

“There is pressure to get a bachelor’s degree, especially during your senior year of high school,” said Sedano-Rodriguez, 22. “There seems to be a general consensus out there that you have to get your four-year-degree. I can’t speak for my other friends, but I just knew it wasn’t for me.”

Sedano-Rodriguez is far from alone in choosing a career path that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree. From vocational schools and on-the-job training to one- or two-year programs at community colleges, people who can’t or don’t want to go to a university have plenty of options.

Certificates, for instance, have exploded in popularity over the last two decades, said Anthony Carnevale, a labor economist and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. They’re the fastest growing form of postsecondary credentials in the U.S., becoming the most common award after the high school degree.

Certificates recognize a completed course of study in a particular field. Many programs last a year or less, making them cheaper and quicker to acquire than a bachelor’s degree.

“It’s not automatically the case that going to a four-year college is the best for you,” Carnevale said. “If you want earnings and a job as soon as possible, you go for a certificate.”

Carnevale, who coauthored a 2012 study and report about certificate education in the U.S., said about half of certificates were found to produce a significant earnings difference over just a high school diploma.

And in some cases, a certificate was a better investment than a college degree. The study found that men with certificates in computer and information services earned more than 72% of men with an associate’s degree and 54% of men with bachelor’s degrees.

Picking a hot field is the key to success, Carnevale said.

“The crucial issue, in economic terms, is to learn something you can sell,” he said.

Among its five campuses, Wayne County Community College District offers more than 50 certificate programs. The most popular involve health care and skilled trades.

New certificates added for 2015-16 include anesthesia technology and product development and prototyping, which includes training in 3D printing. The college has also started a certificate program in craft brewing.

“It’s about the industry, it’s not for you to go home and make craft beer,” joked Anthony Arminiak, president of the Downriver campus. He’s also provost of the Michigan Institute for Public Safety Education, the college’s emergency services training facility.

Some certificates lay the groundwork for a student to continue studying and earn a related associate’s degree.

“In auto body technology, you can get a certificate and get the skills so you can start working,” Arminiak said. “But with an associate’s degree, you can become a service manager. It helps them move up the ladder at a later date.”

In Detroit Public Schools, 1,864 students are enrolled in career technical education programs in the district’s high schools and career technical centers. That’s up from 1,663 in 2014-15, according to DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski.

In September, DPS and the City of Detroit launched a unique two-year pilot program to train juniors and seniors as firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs).

There are about 380 places in Michigan where students can get a career and technical education while still in high school, said Patty Cantu, director of the Office of Career and Technical Education at the Michigan Department of Education. And all 28 community colleges in the state have career tech programs.

About half of Oakland Community College’s 45,000 students move on to a four-year university. The rest go directly into the workforce, said Deborah Bayer, dean of Public Services and the interim dean of Engineering, Manufacturing and Industrial Technologies.

“We are currently seeing a significant increase in the number of apprentices in skilled trades programs and in the number of students looking for classes that will provide them with skills for the workplace,” Bayer said.

The kind firefighters who responded to a car accident Sedano-Rodriguez was involved in with his family as a child sparked an interest in firefighting. Sedano-Rodriguez earned a two-year degree in paramedic emergency services at OCC before signing up for the Oakland Fire Training Institute on campus.

“For me, being a lawyer was not a reality, and I didn’t want to sit behind a desk all day,” Sedano-Rodriguez said. “This was the best option for me and my time, knowing what I wanted to do for a living.”

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