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Free college? Albany should wise up to value of trade schools

SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher had little information this week for state legislators querying her about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan for free tuition at the state’s colleges and universities.

Lawmakers curious about everything from costs to capacity got few answers.

But taxpayers got even fewer about a question that legislators apparently didn’t dwell on but should have: Why focus just on college? Why not also help the thousands of students who can make a good living and fill society’s need for electricians, mechanics and other workers who reach the middle class through vocational education?

Only about two-thirds of high school graduates go directly to college. That leaves tens of thousands of New York kids who have to come up with Plan B.

And not all of those who do go to college should, as evidenced by the fact that the six-year graduation rate for those who entered in 2009 and came out by 2015 was just 52.9 percent, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data show.

So not only did nearly half of college aspirants fail to get a degree, many also left with tons of student debt, as did many who did graduate but never got a job in their field. One study pegged the average four-year cost of college, including loan debt, at $127,000 versus $32,000 for a vocational certificate.

All of which makes you wonder why we keep pushing college as the only alternative when many of those same students might benefit from pursuing trades that don’t require a degree but offer steady work at good pay.

Yet you don’t hear about that out of Albany, even as schools and community colleges revamp curricula to meet what employers call the "skills mismatch." Projects like the Buffalo schools’ $1 billion makeover, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus’ continuing growth and a potential Metro Rail expansion highlight the need for skilled tradesmen, not philosophers and writers.

The market for electricians, for instance, is projected to grow "much faster than average" through 2024, according to O*NET OnLine, a career exploration website. Ditto for heating and air conditioning installers, while auto master mechanics and specialty technicians have "bright" futures.

And the market for chefs and head cooks will grow "faster than average." Maybe that’s why Buffalo’s Emerson School of Hospitality is so popular that the district is creating a second such facility focused on that vocation.

None of these fields requires years at the university.

That’s not to dis a college education. Census Bureau surveys show a bachelor’s degree is worth an extra $22,000 a year compared to those with just a high school diploma. Multiply that over a worklife, and the difference is more than $600,000. And the breadth of knowledge college students gain enriches their lives – and our civic life – in ways that can’t be quantified in dollars and cents.

Still, it’s not for everyone; and public policy should stop pretending like we need everyone to pursue it.

Instead of just grilling Zimpher about free college tuition, lawmakers also should have been asking about help for those who want to pursue good-paying occupations that don’t require a degree. Too bad all those college graduates in the Legislature weren’t sharp enough to figure that out.

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