Commentary: Don't Leave Trade Schools out of 'Free College' Debate

The skyrocketing cost of college tuition is indeed a problem. But at risk of being overlooked is the need to get more students into the nation’s trade schools.

October 2015, - Editorial

by Deborah Lockridge, Editor-in-Chief - Also by this author

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Editor in Chief, Deborah Lockridge
Editor in Chief, Deborah Lockridge

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have both proposed ways to make it more affordable for students to attend public colleges and universities.

Clinton’s “New College Compact” would offer new federal money, while requiring states to increase spending on higher education and requiring universities to control spending. Sanders would go even further, beyond “debt-free” all the way to “tuition-free.”

Republican candidates have thus far not outlined specific plans, but Jeb Bush has pledged to release a broad college affordability plan in October, according to Inside Higher Ed.

The skyrocketing cost of college tuition is indeed a problem. But at risk of being overlooked is the need to get more students into the nation’s trade schools, to fill crucial gaps in occupations such as electrician, carpenter – and diesel technician.

A high school diploma accounts for an average income of $30,000 per year, while a bachelor’s degree is worth $46,900, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Technical and trade school jobs fall about in the middle, with a median annual salary of $35,720.

Keep in mind that those BLS averages include a wide range of jobs, not just highly skilled and in-demand master carpenters, electricians and diesel technicians. The average electrician makes several thousand dollars per year above the average for college graduates, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

“What we say is not everybody needs to get a bachelors’ degree,” says Andrew Hanson, senior economist with the center. Getting some training and education beyond high school does make a difference in a person’s earning power, but for some, the best route for that may be community college or trade school.

The center looked at what it calls “middle skills” jobs to see how many of them pay what it considers a living wage, or more than $37,000 a year, but don’t require a bachelor’s degree.

“We found there were 30 million of these jobs out there, and 10 million are blue collar jobs. So there are lots of jobs where you think of a trade school or a certificate or associate’s degree,” Hanson says.

The center found that 40% of those jobs pay more than $50,000 a year, and about 15% pay more than $75,000 a year.

In short, he says, “You can make good money without having to go get a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college or university.”

Unfortunately, the need to get a four-year degree has become ingrained in our culture over the past couple of decades, and the K-12 education system coaches students to go that path.

“We’ve really sort of devalued what used to be called vocational education and now is called career and tech education,” Hanson says.

There are some efforts to reverse this, he says, mostly at the state level, but funding is not what it could be.

For instance, Tennessee has implemented two programs that use lottery funds to help pay for technical school. “Tennessee Promise” is for high school seniors and will provide two years of tuition-free attendance at a community or technical college in Tennessee. “Tennessee Reconnect,” as part of a program aimed at getting adults to go back to school, offers grants for technical training at any of the 27 Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology.

Both President Obama and Jeb Bush have praised these programs, but the president would like to offer a nationwide version, while Bush believes it’s something states should handle.

According to Forbes, skilled trade workers are a disproportionately older population, and will only continue to get older. Help with college expenses is needed. But also needed are more programs to help younger people learn skilled trades to ensure a supply of highly qualified technicians (and electricians, carpenters, and more) in the near and far future.


  1. 1. Don [ March 17, 2016 @ 12:30PM ]

    Why do I get a cold chill when a normal rational adult repeats "free education" lines from the lets buy every vote by promising people free stuff crowd? Ever hear "Nothing is free, somebody pays". That is tried and true, and never changes. A vote for "free stuff" is a vote for a liar.

  2. 2. Mark Parkey [ April 26, 2016 @ 11:11AM ]

    The concept is not "free school". What the concept is is to use the billions in tax money that is already being collected and used to pay for foreign wars that profit the arms makers and the war machine and tax subsidies that are given to billion dollar corporation and use that tax money for us. The ones who are paying the taxes. The rich people and corporations hide their profits overseas and don't even pay any taxes on it. They live here and go tax free.

  3. 3. Michael Szynkowski [ May 06, 2016 @ 01:02PM ]

    wow you have a way to stop foreign wars and corporations from doing business where they choose to. you must be the smartest person who has ever lived cause your the first in one history to do that. please please tell us how you would accomplish that. Oh you don't have an answer but what would most likely happen is that they will keep doing those things and than make the tax payer pay for the free schools. how do i know that because all of the combined evidence throughout human history of every country, from the Greeks to great Britain ,the Romans, the communists , Canada, the Incans! even them, it is what did happen.

  4. 4. Deborah Lockridge [ May 17, 2016 @ 07:41AM ]

    Don, I'm not necessarily advocating free education -- I'm saying that any efforts to help people pay for school should not ignore trade schools. Michael, I'm not sure where my column talks at all about stopping foreign wars or corporations from doing business where they choose to. My point is simply that as a nation we seem to view technical schools for technicians, truck drivers, as well as trades like electrician or plumber, all vitally necessary, as somehow undesirable compared to a college education.

  5. 5. Michael Szynkowski [ February 18, 2017 @ 12:13PM ]

    sry Deb,was not 4 U, we need trade schools more, college doesn't, in most cases, ready U 4 work the way trade schools do. At the railroad some have degrees and are working here cause they couldn't fine work in their schooled profession. I don't think free works. If you pay for college you excel, 4 A free ride many people just use it cause its there.

  6. 6. DONISDUMB [ March 28, 2017 @ 10:59AM ]



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