It’s a concept that seems strange, maybe heretical, especially to parents and students in communities like Mt. Lebanon: the idea that a four-year college degree might not be the only path to success for ambitious high school graduates. But a combination of factors, including skyrocketing college tuition rates and changing workforce demands, make a compelling case for alternatives, including two-year colleges and training for skilled trades.
According to Forbes magazine, college tuition costs are increasing eight times faster than wages. CollegeBoard.com reports that the average cost of one year of tuition at a public university in 1988 was $3,190; 30 years later it was $9,970, a 213 percent increase. (Both figures have been adjusted to 2017 dollars.) Annual student loan debt among four-year college graduates in 1993 was $9,000; 25 years later it’s more than $30,000, according to the New York Times.
Post-university job prospects are sobering as well: the Bureau of Labor Statistics put the unemployment rate for recent grads at about 8.3 percent, more than twice the national unemployment rate. (For those with advanced degrees, it can be as high as 11.9 percent.) In contrast, unemployment rates for graduates of two-year degree programs such as web development, computer programming, and law enforcement hovered at 5.6 percent, while post-high school technical/vocational schools report almost 100 percent job placement for their graduates. These grads start their careers two years earlier than graduates of four-year programs with an average debt of $10,000, according to a Rutgers University study.
At Mt. Lebanon High School, 97 percent of graduates go on to college, with 86 percent enrolling in four-year schools, according to the district—well above the national college enrollment rate of about 70 percent. Still, a small but growing number of Mt. Lebanon students are considering options offered by Parkway West Career and Technology Center, where they can graduate from high school ready to join the work force, or acquire skills that will ease their path to higher education in their chosen field.
Formerly known as Parkway West Area Vocational Technical School, the Oakdale campus hosts students from 12 local districts, including Chartiers Valley, Upper St. Clair, Keystone Oaks, and Carlynton. Courses include culinary arts, auto technology and body repair, digital multimedia, welding, and more. Students gain practical experience through the school’s cosmetology clinic, offering manicures and hair services; a restaurant and takeout service, and a doggie daycare center. The school also runs a two-day career summer camp for participating district middle schoolers.
Parkway offers dual enrollment collaborations with CCAC, Pittsburgh Technical College and Rosedale Technical College for courses, including public safety technology, masonry and welding, and building construction technology. Eligible students can also earn up to 15 credits for colleges including CCAC, Rosedale, and Mercyhurst.
Mt. Lebanon has been sending students to Parkway since 1965. As recently as five years ago, 24 students were enrolled. This year, there are 51.
Mt. Lebanon School Superintendent Timothy Steinhauer says interest in Parkway has increased. “I believe it’s … a direct result of the revised, relevant programming that is occurring, at Parkway,” he says. “They’ve worked hard to understand the contemporary needs of students and create academic programming around those needs.”
Jenna Schwartz, 16, and Bill Berger, 17, are two Lebo kids who are happy to take a bus from the high school to Parkway every school day, where they study cosmetology and auto technology, respectively, from 7:45 to 10:45 a.m.
“I’m not like a traditional school person,” says Schwartz, who attended Mellon Middle School. “I have very much disliked it since pre-school.” Schwartz says she and her family were looking for options, and Parkway’s cosmetology major seemed like a good fit. She’s in her second year there.
“The first year was a lot of theory, like about hair follicles and nails— science, but useful,” she says. “This year, I love how hands-on it is. “I have a lot of friends here, and no anxiety,” she adds.
Working with cars is what Bill Berger, a Jefferson Middle School grad, wants to do. He welcomed the Parkway courses that were offered as electives after freshman year and echoes Schwartz’s observation about practical knowledge. “I feel regular school isn’t that useful,” he says. “I don’t need to know what the co-efficient of something is to fix cars.”
Berger returns to Mt. Lebanon High School in the afternoon to attend the classes he needs to graduateclasses; he especially likes personal finance. Schwartz takes night classes at Keystone Oaks but is considering returning to Mt. Lebanon for her senior year. Berger graduates from both Parkway and Mt. Lebanon this month with a state inspections and emissions license (and possibly automotive service excellence certification), as well as a diploma. He’s thinking of continuing his education at Ohio Technical College in Cleveland and hopes to work in a dealership someday. Jenna expects to have her state cosmetology license when she graduates in 2020. She likes the idea of working in a salon.
Like his students, Parkway school counselor Rich Wittebort doesn’t mind challenging assumptions: “People see college as a rite of passage, as part of a way of life, but it’s not for everyone,” he notes, nor is it the only path to a successful career.
Wittebort adds that Parkway students who have studied welding are in great demand for oil and gas pipelines in the region. And he says Parkway’s proximity to major health networks like UPMC and Highmark offers lots of opportunities for grads to become sports medicine and physical/occupational therapy assistants. One of Parkway’s most popular new courses, veterinary technician training, has more than 100 students.
School enrollment has grown from about 450 when Wittebort started working at Parkway in 1994 to about 800 students now, he says. Participating school districts, including Mt. Lebanon, are very supportive, but parents can put up roadblocks, he says: “They don’t always see technical education as right for their kids.”
But parents, like students, are changing with the times. “People are increasingly realizing the value in a skilled trades education,” Steinhauer adds. “There’s a lot of attention being brought to vocational programming to meet the needs evolving in the workforce.”
Wittebort acknowledges that not all Parkway courses prepare students for high paying careers. But in an era when many law and medical school students are graduating with more than $100,000 in student loan debt and uncertain job prospects, a full-time career before age 20, with little to no debt, could be the right choice for many.