By the age of 15, Arnold Schwarzenegger had discovered two of his enduring passions: He was interested in bodybuilding and "thought selling things was kind of cool," says the California Governor. So, as is common for high school students in Austria, where Schwarzenegger grew up, he enrolled in a training program for sales. "It inspired me," says the man who went on to hawk physical fitness and action movies. Lately, Schwarzenegger has been an enthusiastic marketer of vocational education, a combination of career training and academics offered in high school that has been in and out of favor in the U.S. since the 1970s.
Some American high schools phased out vocational ed decades ago, when it was better known as shop class and was blamed for segregating--unintentionally or not--poor and minority students into low-paying careers. In his proposed budget this year, President Bush would eliminate all federal spending on vocational ed to pay for his No Child Left Behind high school initiatives, which are geared toward a precollege curriculum. But in his state budget this year Schwarzenegger is asking for $50 million in new funds for high school vocational-ed programs. Last year he pushed through $20 million in new funds. "I have talked to many kids who tell me they don't want to go to college, so why graduate?" says the Governor. "They don't see an end goal. They can't visualize it."
Today vocational ed--or career tech, as it's commonly called--more often involves a computer mouse than a lathe. More than 15 million middle and high school and community-college students are enrolled, up 58% since 2000, in programs like biotechnology and computer networking. According to a 1998 University of Michigan study, high-risk students are eight to 10 times less likely to drop out if they enter a career-tech program. And the notion that career tech is useful only for the student with no college plans is outdated; students who have taken career tech enter college at the same rate as other high school graduates.
When Miriam Hernandez, 17, graduates in June from Clark Magnet High School in La Crescenta, Calif., she will know how to build a computer network, which qualifies her for a job earning about $60,000 a year even before she attends California State University, Los Angeles, to continue studies she has begun in business. Nationally, fewer than 60% of Hispanic girls graduate from high school. But Hernandez, whose friends include several young moms, has been focused on opening a beauty salon, where she believes her computer training will come in handy. For an entrepreneurship class, she drew up a business plan and determined which loans she is eligible for as a Hispanic woman. "I want to get high school done," she says. "I have plans. I can see my future."
Some teens will do fine with a hazy idea of life after graduation. But others need an answer to the question Where am I going to use this? says Mike Seaton, who oversees the career-tech programs in the Glendale Unified School District. In a survey of California ninth- and 10th-graders released last week by the James Irvine Foundation, a nonprofit that awards grants to youths, 90% of students who don't like school said they would be more motivated by classes relevant to their future careers. Those students have many backers, including at least one eager salesman in Sacramento.