A college education is now the second-largest expense an individual is likely to make in their lifetime — right after purchasing a home.
It wasn’t always that way.
Deep cuts in state funding for higher education over the years have contributed to significant tuition increases, pushing more college costs directly onto students. Is pursuit of a certification in a skilled trade, rather than achieving a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree, sufficient to secure well-paying jobs?
One of the first things that Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro did after taking the oath of office in 2023 was to issue an executive order stipulating that college degrees were no longer prerequisites for employment in state jobs.
This decision, following in the footsteps of Maryland, Colorado and Utah, seems to validate a growing trend away from the traditional four-year college degree and towards pursuit of vocational certificates and associate’s degrees. For an increasing number of soon-to-graduate high school students, these types of programs may streamline the path to employment, result in a lower adult debt burden, offer more control over work/life balance, and still provide a steppingstone for the pursuit of further academic opportunities down the line.
Painfully high college costs combined with a shortage of workers is increasing opportunities in the labor force, allowing some experts to declare that the value of a bachelor’s degree is now fading.
“More and more people are asking ‘is a college degree even worth it?’” said Dr. Jason Wingard, the former president of Temple University who wrote “The College Devaluation Crisis.”
“For 50 or 60 years, it was unquestionable; now, what we’re seeing is more of a flatline,” he said adding, “Higher education — for the first time — has to pivot in order to be relevant.”
Newly appointed Superintendent of Schools for the Pennridge School District (K-12), Angelo Berrios, seems to agree with Wingard’s take.
“I am committed to aligning our strategy with the current realities of the 21st century,” he said. “We focus on creating personalized learning experiences that ensure our students are ‘future-ready,’ whether they choose a traditional four-year college path or opt for Career Technical Education.”
He said he feels that, like many school districts nationwide that are coaching their students through critical career decisions, Pennridge shares a joint mission: to nurture lifelong learners, foster individuals, and champion 21st-century learning.
“This reflects a growing recognition that the one-size-fits-all approach to education is no longer sufficient,” Berrios said. “To achieve these objectives, we must offer diverse educational pathways that cater to individual interests, talents, and career aspirations,” be that a college degree or a vocational or associate certificate degree.
Berrios feels that a stigma has historically been associated with Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs.
“However, integrating more advanced technical programs will help change this perception,” he said. “For example, at the high school level, Machining and Engineering Technologies, Mechatronics, and Computer Networking & Cybersecurity are modern and technologically advanced fields that can help to reduce this stigmatization and make CTE more attractive to a wider range of students.”
Not to mention local employers.
In addition, Berrios said he feels these programs can complement more traditional academic coursework by providing practical skills that are highly valued in both college and the workforce.
“It is worth noting that 8.3 million high school students participated in what is now called ‘career and technology education’ (CTE) pathways in 2020-2021, up from 7.5 million the previous year,” said Berrios, citing data from the U.S. Department of Education. “We are preparing our students for a diverse future by offering a broad spectrum of educational opportunities. We recognize that not all students will follow the same path, and that’s O.K.”
These sentiments are echoed by professional educators at Bucks County Community College. The school was founded in 1964 as the first public two-year college in the county.
Established on 200 acres of the former 2,000-acre Tyler Estate that Bucks County acquired in Newtown Township, BCCC prides itself on being a community-minded educational institution dedicated to the value of specialized skills in today’s volatile job market.
To better serve the needs of the entire county, its Lower Bucks Epstein Campus in Bristol houses a new $9.9 million state-of-the-art Center for Advanced Technologies (CAT), providing manufacturing training and workforce programs designed to fill growing need for skilled workers across Bucks County.
Then-Bucks County Community College president Felicia Ganther formally opened the CAT in April by slicing through a metal rod with a power saw instead of cutting a ribbon.
And a BCCC Upper Bucks Campus on the Perkasie-East Rockhill border rounds out the institution’s countywide coverage.
Susan Herring, executive director of BCCC’s Center for Workforce Development, concurs that perceptions are changing.
“As technology advances, the skilled trades are getting more and more technology driven,” Herring said. “Automation and robotics are becoming commonplace, requiring different types of skills than in the past. I think this makes the work more interesting and challenging, and people are starting to see the skilled trades as a great option for a rewarding career” using leading edge technology.
Herring said CTE programs can allow students to build upon their education over a period of time, rather than commit to a full four-year college stint up front.
“BCCC encourages and provides opportunities throughout the entire process — short-term skills-based training programs for unemployed/underemployed job seekers, customized training programs to up-skill current employees, and credit programs that enable workers to gain their associate’s degree or academic certificate,” she said. “Associate’s degree graduates can then choose to transfer to a four-year institution to earn their bachelor’s degree.”
BCCC’s Greg Luce, Dean of Business, Innovation & Legal Studies, says he often encounters students who proactively plan a more traditional business career requiring a bachelor’s degree and he is happy to help them first navigate Bucks and then prepare them for eventual transfer to a university.
However, “today’s students are becoming very savvy about education as an investment and asking, ‘What’s the ROI that I’m getting for the tuition?’ and ‘what are the possible outcomes for me?’.”
Earlier generations graduated high school, went directly to college, obtained a degree, and entered the workforce, assuming there’d be a decent-paying job at the end of the costly journey.
“(Now) I’m seeing the reverse happening, where students are coming to BCCC asking us ‘If I follow this pathway that you’re setting out in front of me, what do I get at the end of it?’,” Luce said. “They are far less willing to invest the time and money into something that doesn’t necessarily pay off in the end. Work/life balance is an important student consideration today.”
Knowing there are no guarantees for subsequent employment, Luce tries to show students what comes at the end of a certain pathway.
“I can provide the five or ten steps they’ll need to follow to get there, and that tangible planning tends to provide assurance that we are an important part of their trajectory towards achievement,” Luce said.
Vocational and tech careers in healthcare, information technology and other skilled trades offer competitive salaries. Herring finds this can incentivize more young people to pursue vocational and associate degree programs over a traditional four-or-more-year college degree.
“I think pay is always a big consideration,” she said. “Here, students can get the training they need in short bursts. They can begin working in their chosen career and then, if they choose, they can continue growing their educational pathway while they are earning.”
At a recent Industrial Maintenance and Metalwork Pre-Apprentice Training Program graduation ceremony, the clear message from BCCC faculty to the graduates was “you are members of our community.”
BCCC educators passionately stressed the idea of partnering with graduates to help them build on what they’ve learned.
The college seeks out opportunities to add, evolve and expand its academic interaction. Even after a student gains employment, that achievement may well become just the beginning of an ongoing, even lifelong, partnership for career growth with BCCC.
“It is not ‘an either/or’ situation,” she said. “Rather it is a ‘What works best for your situation right now?’ Then, it’s being able to build a plan in pathways so students and workers can continue their education when the time is right.”
Today, it’s becoming clearer a new generation is seeking more practical, flexible choices in higher education that can lead to good paying jobs without the millstone of heavy debt combined with the free will to construct a healthier balance between professional and personal lifestyles.
“Trading Up,” the Herald’s three-week series on the popularity of vocational and technical training in Bucks County, was sponsored by a Foundation Fellows Grant from the PA NewsMedia Association.