Higher education is often a hot topic of conversation. We frequently hear about things like higher education policy and how funding for and access to higher education is so important to the long-term health of society.
But what is “higher education” anyway? How do we define what types of education fit that label?
Merriam-Webster defines higher education as “education beyond the secondary level.”
Encyclopedia Britannica defines the term as “various types of education given in postsecondary institutions of learning and usually affording, at the end of a course of study, a named degree, diploma, or certificate of higher studies.”
When people think of higher education, they most often think of traditional colleges and universities that confer bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and doctorates. But the dignified title of higher education is clearly not exclusive to those institutions.
There are numerous advanced forms of education that help teach people new skills and knowledge to prepare them for a career and for their adult life as a whole. High school graduates have plenty of good postsecondary options to choose from. Unfortunately, improper and restrictive use of terms like “higher education” often influence the public mindset and funnel young adults toward a single path.
Craft training programs are among the opportunities that often get overlooked. The scholarship behind trades like carpentry, electrical, welding and pipefitting is every bit as rigorous and rewarding as most college degrees and sets up trainees for careers that make a difference and pay well. It’s time we start looking at construction craft training as a true form of higher education. Here’s why.
In many ways, higher education is simply a synonym for postsecondary education. Postsecondary education is any education that comes after secondary education, another name for high school (with primary education being elementary and middle school).
Craft training can have both secondary and postsecondary components. An example of a secondary component would be a high school carpentry class or a pre-apprenticeship program. Some high schools specialize in career and technical education (CTE), but standard schools can also offer training through electives like shop class or introduction to construction technology.
However, the majority of in-depth craft training happens at the postsecondary level. Construction companies and associations are among the top providers of training, including through apprenticeship programs. Many postsecondary craft training programs span multiple years, just like a university degree. Unlike a college degree, though, this education is split between classroom work and on-the-job training (OJT). This allows trainees to earn while they learn, being paid for their on-site labor with wages that increase proportional to their experience and time in the program.
It’s important to note that postsecondary education comes after high school, but it doesn’t need to come directly after graduation. Craft training is open to both recent graduates looking to enter the workforce for the first time as well as adults who might be looking to change careers. Even college grads often turn to craft training after struggling to find a job in their chosen degree field.
Higher education is often associated not only with the teaching and learning of skills and information, but also with providing verification that those things were learned and their retention was assessed.
Colleges and universities provide degrees, diplomas and transcripts to show that a graduate successfully completed their studies. Rather than testing a job candidate for all their knowledge before hiring them, an employer can see a degree listed on a resume and have an easy understanding of the depth and quality of their expertise.
The modern construction industry also has equivalent indicators of competency for craft professionals, apprentices and trainees, including credentials, certifications and licenses.
Credentials indicate the progress a trainee has made through the different stages of craft training. For example, students in NCCER-accredited programs receive industry-recognized credentials for completing craft levels and individual modules. Craft trainees receive certificates of completion, NCCER wallet cards as well as digital badges that indicate their progression, allowing any hiring company to understand exactly what the candidate knows, what they can do, and what supplemental training might be helpful.
For more experienced professionals, certifications and licenses also play a role in identifying educational and professional accomplishments and proficiencies.
If being considered “higher education” requires a system for verifying skills and knowledge, modern craft training certainly fits the qualifications.
Another component of higher education is the purpose and spirit behind it. Higher education is meant to go into greater detail and depth for a specific subject, allowing students to understand them at more than a basic level and hopefully work within that field professionally.
It’s a common misperception that construction work is unskilled labor; that anyone can pick up a shovel or a hammer and get the job done.
But would you want your home, your school or your hospital built by a team of people with no advanced knowledge or formal training in the tasks that built those structures?
There has been a big push for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in schools throughout America. But while most people think of a career like scientist or computer programmer as the prototypical STEM career, so are careers in construction. Science, technology, engineering and math can be seen everywhere throughout a construction project!
The jobs that create the built environment all around us require unique skills and understanding to be done safely and correctly. Craft training helps to instill that knowledge in students and prepares them to be successful and talented professionals – the core aspect of higher education.
With issues such as growing workforce shortages and rising student debt having an increasingly larger impact on the world, something as simple as the terminology we use to describe a particular educational path can make a big difference. How we talk about and think about different types of education has a large influence on behavior and how young people and their families weigh their options.
By rightfully giving craft training the label of higher education, we can take a step toward opening up a whole new world of opportunities and potential.