The Non-College Dream


Last month, Henrico County Public Schools hosted its second annual Career and Technical Education signing day.

This event gives the same celebration to vocational students signing with employers as to student-athletes signing with college athletic teams. And while it may not be streamed on ESPN it has been showcased by Mike Rowe, The Today Show, and more.

These students have achieved excellence in their fields. They didn’t choose these jobs as a fallback from college. They chose these jobs because they are passionate and skilled in their field. These aren’t just jobs; this is the start of their careers.

We have to stop pushing college as the preferred path for students.

We have to stop defining that college is for the “cans” and trade school is for the “cannots”.

Or equally as misleading that college is for the “haves” and trade school is for the “have nots”.

Instead, we must affirm our students and our own children in their skills and passions and encourage them to take a path that turns their passions into a career.  

College is a path after high school. Trades are another path. One is not inherently better than the other.

As Mac Beaton director of Henrico CTE Education shared, “Everyone’s dream is to end up doing something they love, make a liveable salary, and have people help get them there.”

Somewhere along the line as a society however, we developed the notion that a liveable wage requires a college degree (to be noted this also often comes with sizable college debt). However, some of these 18 year-olds who signed contracts last month have a higher starting salary in their skilled trade than my salary teaching ever was even with a masters degree in education. 

The companies that signed students at the event not only offered salary, health and retirement benefits, and paid time off, most promised to continue education and training in their specialized fields. One local veterinary clinic signed on students who completed the Veterinary Science Program at Hermitage High School. The clinic shared their vision for these students and that they will support them working towards their Vet Tech license while they work and even on through graduation as a Veterinarian. 

A considerable number of representatives from the hiring companies shared that they graduated from the same CTE programs at Hermitage and Highland Springs 20-30 years ago and signed on to the same apprenticeship programs these students are. Now they are running entire divisions or the whole company.

One representative from Rolls Royce who signed a precision machinist addressed the crowd,

“I applaud parents for not being intimidated to let their student pursue a career in a technical field.”

He went on to thank the parents for believing in their child enough to encourage them to follow their passion into a skilled field.

He spoke to the truth that it can be hard to see past what society says is the best and have the courage to see what is actually best for your child.

I have seen this first hand in my own family. My brother went to an elite private high school and on to an engineering school for college. He was miserable. He changed to business school but still wasn’t content. So he left college and all the traditional “shoulds” and “coulds.”

He got an associates degree as an automotive tech. He is exceptionally talented at what he does and brings passion and problem solving to the garage. An amateur racer, car owners bring him their vintage racecars to optimize for the track.

I watched his life change, forever for the better, as he left the college dream to pursue his actual dreams. I’ve seen his joy grow as those dreams realized into a career in a skilled trade.

This doesn’t mean academics aren’t important. Academics are the groundwork that supports many of these fields. We have to grow problem solvers that are able to bridge content knowledge to their skilled trades. We have to raise knowledgeable, civically-minded citizens that will be making decisions for our next generations. All of this starts in the classroom.

But we also have to expand our focus on what life after high school looks like. It may include college. It may start with a career. It may start in the military. 

May we each be bold enough to dream big dreams for our children that are rooted in their skills and passions and not in what we “think they should do.” Thank you, Henrico County, for your work to change the conversation and celebrate the accomplishment of all of our students leaving high school employed, enrolled, or enlisted.


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