• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Vocational Programs Cost More

A key point on the economics of higher ed.


September 8, 2015

Vocational programs cost more.

If I could hammer home a single sentence to the "too many students go to college" crowd, that would be it.

Expanding vocational programs is a great idea, in many ways, but it's not a way to reduce educational costs. 

I say that as someone who actually has to manage budgets for both transfer and vocational programs.  "Comprehensive" community colleges include both.

Vocational programs bring with them much higher capital costs, whether in terms of square footage or equipment. (The auto tech program, for example, requires a dozen hydraulic lifts. That's about a dozen more than the English department requires.) They tend to be more expensive on "consumables," too, whether that's food for the Culinary program or parts for auto tech. 

Many vocational programs come with their own accreditations, too, whether it's ACF, TAC of ABET, or any of the multiple accreditors in allied health. Each of those brings with it its own monitoring and reporting requirements, as well as significant expectations on faculty-student ratios and the presence of lab assistants. 

Gen eds, by contrast, are far cheaper to run. Outside of the lab sciences, they generally don't have high requirements for capital, equipment, or consumables. They don't have separate accreditations. The faculty/student ratios can be higher without jeopardizing, say, patient safety. (Nursing clinicals run at twenty would be unconscionable; Psych 101 sections at twenty are considered small.) 

I bring this up because Tuesday's piece on Vox by a young professor quitting higher education fell into the same "just shunt them into vocational ed" category that so many have. He gives no indication of having the slightest clue as to how vocational programs are actually run, but that didn't stop him.

I'm a fan of vocational education done well.  But "done well" means "with money." If we want to see more students ditch the liberal arts for vocational fields, we'll have to fund comprehensive community colleges at substantially higher levels to pay for it. As anyone in Culinary can tell you, there's no free lunch.


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