I had no inkling there was a problem.
The students in my college English class were working in the computer lab, where each station has a wraparound console which affords pupils the privacy they need to concentrate on their writing. But this also means I can’t see everyone at a glance, the way I do in a regular classroom.
So not till I walked to the middle of the room, and then to the very end of a row of stations, did I see the student I’ll call William with his head buried in his hands.
“Are you feeling OK?” I whispered.
No answer. He was shaking.
Having been a teacher for over three decades, I’ve encountered students in distress. Once, I had to make a referral for domestic abuse. Another time, I had to drop a student after he kept arriving inebriated.
William, it appeared, was in some kind of pain.
“Would you like me to call the school nurse?” I asked.
In the past decade, I’ve dealt with immaturity issues with students as young as 16 because of dual enrollment, a program which allows high schoolers to sign up for college classes to get a head start and save on tuition. But William looked to be about 19, average for a college freshman.
Finally, when I insisted he speak to me so that I would know how to help him, he reluctantly lifted his head.
“I can’t do this,” he said. No tears, but his eyes were red, his face a coil of hurt. “Too much pressure.”
Further questioning, and I learned that his anxiety made today’s lab assignment impossible. Nor had he been able to complete last week’s homework.
Exacerbating everything else was the D he received on a paper I had given him back at the start of class, leading him to fear that he was going to fail and become a “huge disappointment” to his family.
I tried cheering him up by explaining that it was early in the term, when many of his classmates also get low grades, which was why the class was required in the first place: to learn and improve. It was feasible, I assured him, that he could still end up with a good grade by semester’s end.
It’s a speech I’d given before. But William would have none of it. He was feeling too terrible in the here and now, he said. Not only that, he never even wanted to go to college. There had been all these expectations: It was either college or nothing.
Back when I began teaching, I seldom saw the students who were uninterested in the academic journey for a four-year degree. For they were the ones who had acquired internships, started apprenticeships or took jobs in industry and manufacturing, as the culmination of vocational education programs in high school.
But these days I’m seeing more students with William’s dilemma, who are funneled to my classroom for lack of better options.
They are told by their high school counselors that they will not get a decent job without a college degree. And that high school qualifies them only for a low-wage job in the fast-food industry.
Parents have been even more sensitive to the counselors’ warnings. So even when students found they enjoyed working in the building trades or had a knack, say, for auto repair, their parents saw vocational education as a dumping ground for below-average children: Not my child!
Consequently, a report by National Assessment of Vocational Education has shown a steady decline of enrollment in vocational education, with corresponding cuts in federal funding in the last 11 years.
In Chicago schools, vocational classes have been severely reduced and schools and programs entirely dismantled over the past two decades. This is bad news for students like William and bad news for the city as it competes for Amazon’s new headquarters, which comes with 50,000 jobs, many requiring not college degrees but vocational education.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 68 percent of high school graduates go to college. This means that absent vocational training, 32 percent of our young people are unqualified for a job with which they can lift themselves out of poverty.
Of those who do go to college, 40 percent never finish, including William, who dropped before the end of the semester.
How to solve this problem?
We need to debunk the inference made by parents that vocational and technical jobs are inferior. Such a notion has led many of them to steer youngsters unwilling or unsuited for academic study into frustration, failure and depression.
A campaign of public relations, parental education and cash is needed to combat the stigma.
Yes: cash incentives in the form of higher salaries for auto mechanics, veterinary technicians, medical assistants, insurance agents, MRI technologists, physical therapist aides, railroad equipment operators, choreographers and the multitude of other occupations that do not require college but that need to be filled in this country.
Cash such as the $44,000 starting salary for thousands of construction workers that will be hired to build Amazon’s new headquarters, who will require training either on the job or in the kinds of vocational education programs we need to resurrect.
David McGrath is emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage and author of “The Territory.”
Send letters to: firstname.lastname@example.org.