President Donald Trump made a pitch Thursday to boost vocational education, but in the speech he seemed to equate vocational schools with the nation’s community colleges, saying “vocation is a much better word in a lot of cases than community college.”
“When I was growing up, we had vocational schools,” Trump said during a speech to a Republican congressional retreat in West Virginia, recalling a classmate who had a “different kind of talent” and wasn’t the “greatest student” but was skilled at auto repair.
“You learn mechanical, you learn bricklaying and carpentry. We don’t have those things anymore,” Trump said. “I think vocation is a much better word in a lot of cases than community college. A lot of people don’t know what community college means or represents.”
Julie Ajinkya, the vice president of applied research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, told CNN in an interview that the comments didn’t make sense, because vocational schools and community colleges are different types of institutions with separate aims.
“We’re not using that language interchangeably,” Ajinkya said. “A vocational school prepares an individual to enter a career in a very specific industry by preparing them with the technical skills required for a very specific job.”
Community colleges, she said, are more flexible and designed to be “responsive to more nontraditional student needs” and allow them to explore more options.
Jeff Strohl, the director of research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said the President is “talking about a world that no longer exists,” where the economy was predominately made up of workers who could earn a sustaining wage without a college degree.
“That employment doesn’t exist to the same degree that it did before,” Strohl told CNN.
Bill Symonds, the director of the Global Pathways Institute at Arizona State University, called increasing funding for vocational education one of the few issues in Washington that isn’t partisan.
“The President is absolutely right: We need to put more money into this, both at the high school and the community college level,” Symonds said.
Trump made limited reference to education during his first State of the Union address Tuesday night, making a slight nod to vocational education. Leaders of both parties have discussed making vocational education a priority, a shift from the prior era of education reform, which focused on college for everyone as a goal.
“We can lift our citizens from welfare to work, from dependence to independence, and from poverty to prosperity,” Trump said. “Let us invest in workforce development and job training. Let us open great vocational schools so our future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential.”
Trump did not elaborate or give specific proposals on how to do that.
In a statement following the State of the Union address, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that “America must do better to prepare our students for success in the 21st century economy.”
“I join the President in calling on Congress to act in the best interest of students and expand access to more education pathways,” she said.
The funding though, has been a point of contention between the two parties. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi fired back on Twitter:
“Build new vocational schools? With what? Your FY18 budget *cuts* these programs and career technician education,” the California Democrat wrote.
CNN’s Lauren Holt contributed to this report.