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The Iconic American Dream May Have Shifted, But It’s Not Dead

January 18, 2017

By Karen Weiss, Ed.D.

A house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, married with two children, a college education followed up by landing a good job, putting one on the fast track to upward mobility.  This was and still is to some degree the standard for the iconic American Dream. 

While the appeal to achieve the ideal of the American Dream is still relevant today as so many years ago with young people seeking a postsecondary education to start them on the path to prosperity, the focus has shifted to include a connection with the economy.  That connection can be found in career and technical education, or CTE for short. 

CTE, formerly referred to as vocational education, is defined as an educational program offered primarily at community colleges specializing in the skilled trades, modern technologies, applied sciences and career preparation.  With today’s advancements in technology, career and technical education programs bring together the practical and theoretical by applying academic knowledge to real-world problems.  This prepares students for a wide array of careers, including automotive and diesel technology, culinary arts, construction, agriculture, healthcare, engineering, and information technology.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 65 percent of jobs in today’s workforce are classified as “skilled and technical.”  In addition, most jobs that fall into this category require training beyond high school but do not necessarily require a four-year degree. 

Of the 55 million job openings created by 2020, 30 percent will require some college or two-year associate degree according to Recovery:  Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020, a publication by Georgetown University. 

Not only are these vocational skill sets a strategic part of the economy, but they are central to the work of community colleges, which help to prepare young people and adults for a wide range of high-wage, high-skill and high-demand careers.  In general, community colleges work closely with business and industry leaders to stay on the cutting edge of advancements in their programs so that students step into the work environment having the most up-to-date knowledge in their fields of interest.

Most CTE programs take one to two years to complete, dependent upon the individual program of study and/or industry standards.  In addition, for many who complete CTE programs and become employed, the return on their investment on average is high with above average wages and less debt than those who may have chosen a more traditional route at a four-year university. 

For example, according to the BLS, welding jobs have been projected to grow 15 percent from 2010–2020, with the median pay averaging $35,000 annually.  Let’s say your daughter Haley completes an associate’s degree in welding at Southeastern Illinois College.  Over a two-year period, she would have invested around $7,000 in her education, and less if completing a one-year certificate.  That is a good return on her investment! 

In a recent study conducted at the University of California, researchers found that in some vocational fields, especially healthcare, vocational degrees pay off significantly, providing graduates as much as 65 percent more income per year, compared with those who had a similar wage history prior to starting a healthcare degree, but did not complete it. 

Similarly, researchers at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that 43 percent of young workers with licenses and certificates earn more than those with an associate degree; 27 percent earn more than those with a bachelor’s; and 31 percent of workers with associate degrees earn more than those with a bachelor’s.

So, for young adults at the beginning of their education and for adults coming back to advance their skills, it may be worthwhile to look at a career and technical education field.  The job opportunities are there, many times right in their own communities, and the return on the investment can certainly put them on the path to achieving the American Dream.

Karen Weiss, Ed.D., is the Vice President of Academic Affairs at Southeastern Illinois College.