ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
This time of year, a lot of high school seniors are trying to answer the question, am I going to college? But maybe the real question should be, do I need to go to college? Ashley Gross of member station KNKX in Seattle reports.
ASHLEY GROSS, BYLINE: Matt Dickinson is wearing safety goggles and a sweatshirt that says the word college on it, inspired by the movie "Animal House." But he's not in a lecture hall. He's learning how to rebuild a car transmission.
MATT DICKINSON: Oh, yeah, that bearing goes on the top where this hits.
GROSS: Dickinson is 21 years old. He goes to a technical college outside Seattle. He's working toward an associate's degree to become an auto repair technician. He already tried the traditional route at a state university.
DICKINSON: And it was kind of this whole big thing like, hey, go to college; get a four-year degree; make a bunch of money.
GROSS: He didn't really like it. His grades weren't that great, and he was unhappy after he got cut from the track team.
DICKINSON: So I was like, you know what? Whatever, I'm done here. I like cars. I'm going to go to a trade school.
GROSS: Dickinson now has a part-time job working on Corvettes and Camaros. He says he's not worried about finding a job when he's done. Auto technicians in the Seattle area make about $53,000 a year. Some earn almost six figures. And yet the K-12 system has pretty much one focus.
CHRIS CORTINES: An emphasis on the four-year university track.
GROSS: Chris Cortines works in the Washington State Auditor's Office. He co-authored a recent report that found students are getting funneled into college because it's the default. Some struggle and drop out.
CORTINES: Being more aware of other types of options might be exactly what they need.
GROSS: Things like trade schools, associates degrees and apprenticeships. Of course a college degree still gives you a leg up in earning power, but there are lots of fields where you don't need a bachelor's.
KATE KREAMER: There's huge demand in health science. There's huge demand in IT. And in some communities, there's definitely a demand in manufacturing.
GROSS: Kate Kreamer is with the group Advance CTE, a nonprofit focused on career and technical education. She says the problem is there's still a stigma around vocational programs. Parents remember the old woodshop classes from high school.
KREAMER: Where it was for kids that, you know, weren't "college material," quote-unquote, or weren't academically prepared and were really a dumping ground.
GROSS: She says that's no longer the case, and people who are going into the trades are discovering their skills are really in demand.
JESSICA BRUCE: The misconception is that, you know, we don't make as much money.
GROSS: At 41, Jessica Bruce is training to become an iron worker. She's wearing a hard hat and work boots at a union-run apprenticeship program south of Seattle. Here there are no loans, no tuition. You get paid while you learn. And with so much construction in Seattle now, jobs are plentiful. Bruce and the other apprentices are getting timed on how fast they can secure a 600-pound beam into place.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right, disconnect. There you go. Right on - wrong side, though (laughter).
GROSS: Bruce says no one told her the skilled trades were an option when she was growing up.
BRUCE: Ironworker had been my passion for so many years, and I know I could run with the big boys. So I decided, well, I didn't want to be, you know, 80 years old wishing I did that. So I here I am doing it, living the dream.
GROSS: Right now Bruce is making more than $60,000 a year. She doesn't have to worry about how she'll pay for braces for her 10-year-old daughter, and her message to her daughter is there are lots of avenues open, not just college. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Gross in Seattle.
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SHAPIRO: This story's part of a partnership with The Hechinger Report, a news organization focused on education.
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