Keyboarding
Minuteman students can take a range of classes, including keyboarding. Student Sean Datar is in the back. - 

This story originally appeared on "American RadioWorks" as part of their hour-long documentary "Ready to Work: Reviving Vocational Ed." 

If there’s one message today’s high school students hear over and over again, it’s this: Go to college.

But Liz King, who grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, has known since middle school that college was not for her.

“I’m not a book person,” she says. “You know you are or you’re not.”

So, when the time came, King asked to go to Minuteman, a vocational high school near by. She wanted to become a hairdresser.

“I wasn’t having any of that,” says King’s mom, Jeanette Chapman. Years earlier, her son had asked if he could go to Minuteman to study plumbing. She said no to him too.

“I just had the impression that going to vocational school, he would miss out on something, a profession where you could make more money,” Chapman says. “I think it was all to do with making more money.”

Chapman, like most parents, wanted her kids to go to college. Surveys show more than 90 percent of Americans believe a college education is important.

More than 90 percent of Americans believe a college education is important, but only 32 percent of people over the age of 24 have a bachelor’s degree.

“You’ve got a paradigm that’s embraced by almost everybody, but the reality is that by the time they get to their late 20s, only 30 percent of young people have actually gotten a four-year degree,” says Bill Symonds, director of the Global Pathways Institute and author of a 2011 report for the Harvard Graduate School of Education called Pathways to Prosperity. The report argues the U.S. is failing to prepare millions of young people to lead successful lives because high schools focus too narrowly on an academic, college-prep approach to education.

Symonds says there are millions of good jobs that don’t require a Bachelor’s degree. Many of those jobs are in so-called “middle-skill” occupations, like construction manager and computer technician. These jobs tend to require professional licenses and certificates, but not college.  According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, the median certificate holder out-earns more than a quarter of people who have Bachelor’s degrees.

Straight to college — or not

Thirty-four percent of 2013 high school graduates were not enrolled in college as of Oct. 2013

Enrolled
1.96 million
Not enrolled
1.01 million
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Minuteman

Minuteman Regional High school, a vocational school outside of Boston, offers the kind of education in which, Symonds says, the nation should invest more. Students spend half their time in academic classes and half in a career major. They can choose high tech fields like robotics and computer programming or traditional trades like plumbing and carpentry.

Steve Hurley, a graduate of the electrical wiring program, says he chose Minuteman because he “didn’t want to get out of high school and not know what I was going to do with my life.”

Hurley graduated in 2014 with a certificate that helped him get started as an electrician’s apprentice. If he becomes a certified electrician, he can expect to make about  $40,000 a year to start. That’s higher than the median wage for all workers in the United States.

Michelle Roche, director of career and technical education at Minuteman, says lots of kids who might otherwise drop out of high school end up thriving in vocational school.

“The students who have not felt success when they’re in a traditional academic school, where they've got to sit, the teacher’s talking at them, they’ve got to regurgitate this information, they've got to memorize and study. They’ll come here and they’re standing on their feet, they’re working with their hands, they figure out a problem,” she says. “And success breeds success.”

Graduation rates at regional vocational high schools in Massachusetts are actually higher than at traditional high schools.

'If I went to college, I would waste a crap-load of money'

Liz King, the aspiring hairdresser, convinced her mother to let her go to Minuteman, by promising to take all the college prep classes, in case she changed her mind about going to college.

But King says she knew college wasn’t for her.

“I thought that if I went to college, I would waste a crapload of money,” she says. “I knew I wasn’t good at studying. I was a procrastinator. And if someone was like, ‘Hey Liz, let’s go party, hey Liz, let’s go NOT study,’ I would’ve been like. ‘OK!’ I’m not self-motivated like that.”

But she is motivated about her career in cosmetology.

King graduated from Minuteman in 2004. By then, she had completed enough training hours in school to take the exam for her cosmetology license. She took the test days after she finished her high school classes and had her license by the time she walked across the stage to get her Minuteman diploma.

“My thing was having my certification before I walked,” she says. “That was more important to me than my diploma.”

King is now 28. She’s married, has a baby, and is doing what she loves.  She and a business partner recently opened their own hair salon. It’s called J&L Studio, in Arlington, Massachusetts.

King won’t say how well it’s doing, but she says her family is “good, we’re comfortable, we’re paying our bills.”

She also says that when it’s time for her daughter to look at high schools, she plans to take her to Minuteman.

“Who knows, she might be book smart and want to be a doctor and then I don’t know if Minuteman would be the right choice for her. Maybe she would need like a Harvard-type high school. But, says King, “I want her to know that it’s not one way or no way.”

What you learn, what you earn

Average earnings of U.S. workforce by education

Graduate degree
$76,000
Bachelor's degree
$54,300
Associate's degree
$42,088
Certificate
$34,946
Some college, no degree
$34,624
High school graduate
$29,202
High school dropout
$20,480

Source: Georgetown University

What do I love to do?

Ed Bouquillon, the superintendent of the school district where Minuteman is located, says when students graduate from Minuteman he wants them to be able to answer two questions: What do I do well? And what do I love to do?

“And we’ll connect the answers to occupations or college majors,” he says.

When he meets with parents, he asks them if they know the answers to those two questions.

“Some say ‘yeah,” he says. “And some say, ‘Boy, I wish someone had asked me that in high school.’”