Gov. Haley Barbour says there’s nothing wrong with encouraging some Mississippi high schoolers to aim for skill trade training instead of a university degree.
"When we tell kids they ought to go to universities who shouldn’t, we set them up for failure," Barbour said during a meeting of some 200 educators this week in Jackson. "We need to get more young people in skills training to give them the capacity to be successful early in life."
Not all Mississippi high school students will go to college, or even graduate. The state’s dropout rate is 16 percent. Only about 17 percent of the state’s population has a college degree.
Barbour said Mississippi’s educational system has to rid itself of the stigma attached to vocational and technical training courses for students – an attitude that’s been in place since he was student at Yazoo High School. He said teens caught smoking or engaging in other misdeeds back then were sent to shop class.
"Shop was the penal institution of Yazoo High," Barbour told the group. "I fear that in high school we stigmatize the children who are not going to go to college and take the route" of skill trade jobs.
Barbour’s concerns may be unfounded since Mississippi continues to expand a new high school redesign program that creates career pathways for students. But it is part of a debate about how much emphasis should be given to technical training on the high school level.
Many education supporters say giving students an option is OK, as long as academics continue to be emphasized.
"Vocational training is for the ones that do not want to pursue careers that will require a degree, but they still need their basic education," said Rep. Clara Burnett, a Democrat from Tunica and a former elementary school teacher who attended this week’s meeting.
Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents’ Campaign, a group that lobbies lawmakers on behalf of educational issues, said every student should have the opportunity to pursue a college education.
"We need to be sure the education we provide all students will enable them any time in their lives that they might choose to go to college to prepared to do so," Loome said.
Mississippi’s relatively new high school redesign program lets students choose coursework based on their career interest. So far, the program is in 39 of the state’s 152 school districts, said Mike Mulvihill, associate superintendent for vocational education and work force development at the state Department of Education.