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Why is trade school so taboo in the US?

In Germany, it is completely normal for students that have graduated school to go directly into a trade school instead of college; in fact, students can learn to be in IT through hands-on learning. In the US, most are encouraged to attend college for four or so years to get a degree before actually seeing the realities of the career they're entering, and vocational schools are scoffed at, even though they can be sometimes even better at preparing students to work. Can anybody who has been in vocational school or traditional university (or both) explain what disadvantages there may be to trade school that have built up this cultural attitude? I'm intrigued to see if it may be more worthy to save money from a college route and embark on an experience-based journey to a life-long career.

#trade-school #vocational-school #tech #science #information-technology #foreign #save-money #university #united-states


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John’s Answer

Hi. I have lived and raised children in Germany before returning to the US. The German system is very practical and does decide at a much earlier age (In US this decision is made at age of 18 when you graduate high school vs. in Germany I believe it was more like the age of 12+). The timing of the decision might contribute the some of the negative taboo on vocational schools. It is almost as if well they tried to do college but it did not work out so fall back is vocational school. Whereas in Germany it is more an "equal" professional track. Vocational schools can be perfect and a very appropriate fit in the United States. It all depends upon the student and their passion. If they are passionate about a vocation there are schools to support it and the result can be a successful profession/job. Some of these roles can lead to good paying jobs or perhaps even a start up business that could be lucrative. However, in the US much of a career's success is sometimes (not saying this is right) judged upon financial income. College based professions typically (statistics prove this out in the US) pay more over a longer horizon (like 5 to 10 years) so this can contribute to "not wanting to go the vocational" route. Hope those nuances help. Lots of opinions on this topic for sure. Bottom line you can do great in either direction provided you are passionate in that direction.... JT


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Simeon’s Answer

A large part of it is that families and groups determine success by how big a degree they get and how prestigious the career is. It's less about income and more about a vague idea of "success". To be a blue collar worker is a failure in many people's eyes, especially if you were fully capable of getting a better job. Definitely some classism involved.

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Dhairya’s Answer

Hi Yekaterina,
Thanks for sharing your experience from Germany. It's always fascinating to see what educational norms look like in other countries.

At a high level, the problem with vocational schools is that the quality of education is quite terrible. Most trade and vocation schools are run as for profit entities and have a sordid history of engaging in predatory behavior that leaves student indebted and without the requisite skills for their chosen professions. I've linked a couple of articles below that go into the dangers of for-profit vocational schools. The crux of these papers highlights the following patterns:
- for-profit trade colleges are not accredited and certified in the same way traditional colleges and universities are. As a result students there can't transfer credit to more traditional programs if they decide to leave.
- Due to lack of accreditation or misleading accreditation, many employers don't recognize the degrees from these programs. Students are not told this when they apply and often finds themselves unable to find opportunities as many established employers refuse to hire students out of these programs.
- Most disturbingly, these programs are expensive. They're often as expensive as private colleges. There is a pattern of these schools targeting poor minority students and encouraging them to take on excessive loans which leaves the students in debt and with a degree that is not valuable in the market place.

I attended a vocational high school in an underprivileged city. My high school consisted primarily of hispanic and black students coming from impoverished communities. The administration had no respect for its students and set incredible low bars to ensure graduation. We ranked in the lowest percentile for student achievement tests. Only about 30% of students graduated and were able to go to a 2 year or 4 year college. I literally had teachers who show up to work drunk or tell us to read a book and refuse to teach. What was insidious was that the school felt the students had no future. They made no effort to offer classes to help student succeed. By 11th grade I ran of math classes and had to go to a local university to get the basic math education that other schools provided. The vocational education programs were outdated and students were unable to find opportunities as many of those vocation simply didn't exist.

To be fair this is one anecdote. There were a couple great vocational schools in more privileged communities which provided real opportunities. But they few and inaccessible.

Vocational and trade schools have a long history of providing substandard education to minority students and are indicative a larger set of systemic inequalities. As you'll in the articles below, many of these programs really end up targeting poor and minority students with promises of social mobility while actually leaving the students worse off and further in debt.


This has been instrumental in my career decisions, so I'd like to thank you for taking the time to give me a response that is both professional and drawn from personal experience. Yekaterina Z.

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