Widening the Skills Gap in North Carolina

By March 3, 2007General

North Carolina appears to be in the midst of a major shift of educational priorities, one guaranteed to ill-serve a large number of young people and exacerbate the “skills gap” that bedevils manufacturing in the United States.

As the Raleigh News and Observer reports in this excellent account of the issue, the state’s new graduation requirements will mandate additional coursework traditionally intended for students bound for a four-year college degree (specifically two courses in foreign languages and one in advanced math).

[Critics] say the intense focus on college readiness that guides such reform efforts often blinds policymakers to the merits of vocational programs, such as preparing students for careers and providing courses that are relevant to everyday life. Statewide, only 48 percent of graduating seniors say they plan to go straight to a four-year college or university.

“We need to ask if we are giving students the full and rich education that they need in order to meet their career goals and other goals in life,” said Steve DeWitt, policy director for the Association for Career and Technical Education.

Exactly so. As the N&O reports, North Carolina’s students enrolled in nearly half a million vocational courses last year. Not everyone desires or is cut out to pursue a four-year college education directly out of high school. Students may find themselves better suited to attend community college or immediately enter the workforce; their personal interests, family priorities, and financial considerations could well make a four-year education the absolutely wrong choice.

These new requirements also inherently mean the allocation of limited educational resources away from vocational courses, the kind that prepare students for employment in manufacturing and other productive sectors of the economy.

Also, as our friend George Leef at the Pope Center in North Carolina frequently points out, pushing a large number of unmotivated or ill-equipped students into higher education harms the quality of that education. George recently published an insightful column on the topic, also addressing important questions about financing higher ed.

Educators and policymakers in North Carolina and elsewhere need to stop and take a step back, pondering for a moment whether a four-year college education is an inherent good…for students, for society, and for the economy. Many of the students who enjoy and find value in vocational education courses have some things they could teach them on the subject.