By Cole DuHaime, 2023 Governor's STEM Scholar
One afternoon at the Union County Vocational-Technical Schools (UCVTS) campus, computer science students were coding a website, cosmetology students were practicing a new hairstyle, and sustainable science students were composting cafeteria leftovers when the school’s power went out. Darkness didn’t stop engineering students in AP Physics from solving problems by the dim light of their calculators, and in my multivariable calculus class, we continued discussing triple integration. This collaboration and dedication to learning, even in the face of challenges, is evident at county vo-tech schools across New Jersey. Students are committed to their studies because they have chosen to focus on their passions.
New Jersey has 68 vocational public schools serving 30,316 students across all 21 counties. As a senior at UCVTS, I've seen the many benefits of county-level vocational education. Newer career and technical schools and traditional vocational training programs should be expanded, and funding increased, because of the essential academic and economic opportunities they provide to the diverse population of New Jersey students.
Since the 1950s, traditional vocational programs have prepared students to enter the workforce as electricians, construction workers, and hair stylists without attending college or accruing the debt that goes along with it. Today, vocational students earn industry credentials during high school, which qualify them to find well-paying jobs directly after graduation. In New Jersey, a shift towards academic focus at county career academies, where students can specialize in fields such as engineering, health sciences, or computer science, began in the 1990s. Today, the state is a leader in vocational education, combining competitive academics with work-based learning.
According to 2022 data from Public School Review, New Jersey vocational public schools have higher math and reading proficiency scores than other New Jersey public schools. Juhi Amin, a senior at Monmouth County’s Academy of Allied Health and Science, said the school has “opened up so many opportunities which I would have never received at my home high school.”
Yet New Jersey vocational schools are not adequately funded. For the 2022-2023 school year, UCVTS will spend $16,825 per student. The average 2023 spending per pupil in New Jersey is $20,021, among the highest in the country, according to World Population Review. New Jersey is known for its innovative economy and top-notch public education. So why isn’t career and technical education spending keeping up?
To be sure, tax-weary New Jerseyans may not support increased funding to county vocational schools, arguing that money should instead go to local public schools. Currently, however, only about 1.6% of the total Union County tax levy goes to UCVTS.
With their distinct focus on preparing students to enter the workforce and meeting the demands of the state’s labor market, the role of vo-tech academies cannot be filled by local high schools. “What’s unique about what we do is to provide the spaces where students are actually experiencing those careers,” said Gwendolyn Ryan, secretary of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools. The ability to provide hands-on learning in a welding workshop, cosmetology studio, computer lab, or Makerspace where engineering students turn their designs into reality is what sets vo-tech academies apart, said Mrs. Ryan, who is also the superintendent of UCVTS.
Students, parents, and employers can advocate for increased funding for vocational-technical education by attending county commissioner meetings or writing letters to local or state officials. March is New Jersey STEM Month, so it is especially relevant for NJ legislators to keep vo-tech schools in mind as they consider the state’s budget in the coming months. By increasing the resources available to county vo-tech schools, our New Jersey students will be better prepared to contribute to the local economy.
Cole DuHaime is a senior at Union County Vocational-Technical Schools’ Academy for Information Technology. He is a 2023 New Jersey Governor’s STEM Scholar.