Every industry has been grappling with how the fallout of COVID-19 alters its day-to-day functioning. The K-12 education community has been especially strained by the shift from classrooms to computers.

Pundits are predicting that online learning will last beyond this moment, and this may well be true. Yet a more consequential shift in K-12 education could be the welcomed acceleration of enthusiasm for career and technical education in high schools — that is, pathways from secondary schooling into the world of work instead of immediate enrollment in college.

As the financial fallout of the pandemic spreads, colleges are bracing for how it will affect them in fall 2020 and beyond. Anticipating lower enrollment numbers, university admission departments at Ivies, state schools, and private religious universities alike are accepting a larger share of applicants just to meet their enrollment targets. Lower enrollment is not a trend that COVID-19 started, but the virus may likely accelerate it.

Indeed, for eight consecutive years, enrollment at universities has been steadily falling. This has coincided with a general shift in opinion about the importance of college. Gallup reported that between 2013 and 2019, there was a 19% drop in people who considered college education “very important.” Notably, that decline was most pronounced among those of college-going age.

Moreover, the percentage of adults aged 18-29 who affirmed it as “very important” dropped from 74% in 2013 to 41% in 2019. As college attendance is increasingly seen as inessential, institutions could take a particularly hard hit in this time of financial tightening. However, career and technical education could be an alternative.

Career and technical education emphasizes workforce preparation and offers a route to careers in countless fields, including many that are essential even during a health crisis, such as agriculture, law enforcement, information technology, plumbing, and healthcare. Unlike higher education, it can also lead young people into the workforce without substantial student debt.

Yet even as we praise such professions during times of crisis, our national public spending priorities don’t reflect such appreciation. For instance, in 2016, the federal government subsidized higher education 70 times more than career and technical education, offering only $1 billion to career and technical education in comparison to the whopping $70 billion meant to encourage college attendance. In the past 30 years, our federal spending on higher education has doubled, and our spending on career and technical education has declined.

Far too often, these “blue-collar” workers operate quietly, largely unnoticed, in the background of everyday life. However, as many professionals sit homebound, our reliance on truckers, grocers, farmers, healthcare workers, and first responders for sustenance, basic supplies, medical care, and safety is made strikingly visible. But it shouldn’t take a crisis to acknowledge and invest in their value. Their daily commitment to our well-being deserves reciprocation — both in the form of a cultural shift toward more deliberately acknowledging their contributions and by a financial investment in the educational pathways that make such professions a more desirable option for young adults entering the workforce.

For his part, President Trump’s State of the Union proposal sought to allocate an additional $900 million to career and technical education. And a growing number of state of the state addresses mentioned the importance of career and technical education. Indeed, other prominent figures, like Sen. Marco Rubio, have argued that it’s time to move away from the dominant “college for all” mentality. All of these signs are encouraging — they suggest a growing awareness of the dignity of any work that gives us meaning, teaches us responsibility, enables us to earn stable wages, and facilitates our ability to contribute to our families and communities.

Moreover, preparation for this dignified work need not come from an expensive college or graduate program but rather can come from education programs that lead young people into an array of trades and professions, including the very ones that have been neglected by our excessive enthusiasm for higher education.

If this terrible pandemic teaches us anything, one hopes at least part of that lesson will be a greater American appreciation for industries that have helped keep the nation afloat — not just during this extended period of isolation but throughout our history. And we must then act on that knowledge by investing in the kinds of programs that give young people the opportunity to explore and prepare for these jobs, whether as permanent professions or an intermediary step before higher education.

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