LITTLE ROCK – Civic and business leaders want to increase the number of college graduates in Arkansas, to prepare the state’s young people for the best jobs being created in the global economy.
However, members of the Senate Education Committee don’t want policy makers to neglect the thousands of young students who may not attend or finish college. With the idea in mind that not all students are meant to get a university degree, they have sponsored legislation to improve opportunities for high school graduates and to raise the standards for courses that prepare students for careers.
There are various names for the courses, such as vocational and technical education. At a recent meeting of the Education Committee, legislators were briefed on the effectiveness of state efforts to improve career and technical education (CTE) in public schools. Although young students are taught living skills and the basics of choosing a career, the main focus for CTE is in high schools.
Charter schools and public school districts spend about $120 million a year on CTE offerings. The specific amount is hard to pin down because of the nature of CTE classes. Students sometimes take courses at their home campus, but sometimes they take classes in facilities where the costs are shared by several districts, educational cooperatives or local two year colleges.
Facilities known as Secondary Area Career Centers serve multiple districts, and offer technical courses using equipment that is too expensive for a single district, such as automotive lifts. Last year more than 18,600 students took CTE classes in the centers.
The most popular study programs at the career centers were medical professions, welding and automotive service technology. Of the CTE offerings that students took at the home campus of their high school, the most popular were a) family and consumer sciences, b) agricultural power, structural and technical systems and c) digital communications.
One of the challenges of CTE courses is overcoming the stigma that traditionally has been attached to vo-tech education. A study of the class of 2014, conducted by the Fordham Institute, indicates that students who focused on CTE classes graduated at a higher rate than the student body in general.
After graduating from high school they were more likely to get a job, enroll in a two-year college and earn higher wages than students who did not concentrate on CTE.
According to surveys done by the state Department of Workforce Services, the job category in Arkansas that is expected to grow the most for people with only a high school diploma is food preparation and food serving. They include jobs in fast food, restaurant cooks, as waiters and waitresses and food preparation. The second-most in demand occupation will be as retail salespersons.
For people with an associate’s degree from a two year college, the most demand will be for heavy equipment and tractor-trailer drivers. Second in demand will be for nursing assistants.
For people with a bachelor’s degree, the highest demand will be for registered nurses. The second most in demand category will be general and operations managers.
In Arkansas, 22 percent of adults between 25 and 64 have a bachelor’s degree. A high school education is the highest level of education for about half of the population of Arkansas.