Parents' perceptions about technical colleges on upward trend

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By Kyle Schwarm


     The number of middle and high school parents who are open to their children attending a technical college is trending upward, but many parents are still defaulting to the four-year track.

     Research conducted with more than 600 parents across all 72 Wisconsin counties, shows more than 68 percent of parents have a favorable impression of Wisconsin’s technical colleges compared with 56 percent in 2007. The Parents’ Perceptions Research shows the number is up six percent since 2010 and up two percent since 2013.

     This is good news for technical colleges in Wisconsin because a stronger reputation must be in place for parents to be more likely to recommend a technical college to a son or daughter. Currently, only 35 percent of parents would recommend a technical college to their child (responded with nine or ten on a zero to ten point scale). This is up only slightly from 2007 when it was 33 percent.


Line chart showing upward trend in reputation of technical colleges.
Source: Wisconsin Technical College System
     Most parents (47 percent who responded with a five to eight) are on the fence when it comes to this question, while only 18 percent are not likely at all (responded with zero to four) to recommend a technical college to a son or daughter. The likelihood for these same parents to recommend a technical college to a friend or colleague is only slightly higher (36 percent), but there are more parents on the fence (53 percent) and fewer detractors (11 percent).

       While the reputation of technical colleges is on the rise, most parents continue with the one-track higher education mindset for their children. Therefore, the likelihood for parents to consider a technical college for their own children has been relatively flat over the four waves of research. Interestingly, 84 percent of these same parents indicate they do not believe all students benefit from a four-year degree. Perhaps most alarming is that only 13 percent of parents mentioned a technical college as a first choice for their middle or high school students. 


Pie chart showing the overwelming number of parents who do not agree that all students benefit from a four-year college education.
Source: Wisconsin Technical College System

     Which parents are recommending a technical college for their sons and daughters? According to the research, parents who are likely to recommend a technical college to a son or daughter are more likely to have been exposed to a technical college, either by attending themselves or having a family member who attended. Parents who attend or visit technical colleges almost always come away impressed by how welcoming they are, the breadth of programs, the technology and the one-on-one attention.

     Conversely, parents who are not as likely to recommend a technical college tend to have predispositions of four-year universities as a better fit. Many believe success can only be achieved through a four-year university and tend to devalue career and technical education that provide the skills necessary for 60 percent of the new jobs of the future. These parents are not heeding the messages that our society is producing too many four-year graduates who will not be able to take jobs away from technical college graduates because they won’t have the skills to do them.  

      For parents to effectively assist middle and high school students navigate the many options after high school, they should consider the following:

1.  There are a disproportionate number of four-year college grads entering the labor market and causing a skill mismatch and underemployment amongst these grads.

2.  College debt is at an all-time high, driven by four-year students ($36,000 average per student) and $400 per month loan payments are difficult for graduates to handle when they are underemployed.

3.  The cost of attending technical college is less than half that of a public four-year university per semester; this is a quarter the cost when you consider it takes half the time or less.

4.  A record number of transfer options between technical colleges and four-year universities makes the technical colleges a smart place to start but transfer options are being underutilized.

5.  Better than nine in ten (93 percent) of technical college graduates are employed within six months of graduation.

6.  The median salary (half are above this amount and half are below this amount) for all new technical college graduates is more than $36,000 ($40,000 for associate degree grads).    

     Certainly, not all four-year graduates are earning top dollar upon graduation and the same could be said for many technical college graduates. However, the questions about debt and employability should not be ignored, especially if a particular bachelor’s degree is going to lead them back to a technical college to earn a skill.             

     While data is not available in Wisconsin, a recent study in Texas shows associate degree graduates earn approximately $11,000 more than bachelor’s degree graduates. Nationally, Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce has found at least a third of associate degree graduates earn more money than bachelor’s degree graduates and 63 percent of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) workers with associate degrees earn more than non-STEM workers with bachelor’s degrees.

      In some cases, bachelor’s degree holders will eventually surpass associate degree graduates in salary, but this depends on so many variables, including the occupation and the characteristics of the person. Worth noting, however, is that the associate degree education takes half the time and usually less than half the money as a bachelor’s degree education. It’s also worth noting that six in ten, two-year college graduates in the U.S. graduates with $0 debt at graduation, so payback is typically quicker.  Compare this with the average debt ($36,000) for a bachelor’s degree graduate and the decision becomes more difficult.

     The two-year college option will never be the top choice for all parents or students. However, parents should be open to exploring a child’s interests and abilities and consider all education options before defaulting to the four-year track. Parents who do can be assured they are providing their children with more room to discover who they are on their own terms and increase the likelihood they will have future success and happiness. 

The research was commissioned by the Wisconsin Technical College System Statewide Marketing Consortium and conducted by Appleseed Consumer Insights of Cambridge, MA and The Dieringer Group of Brookfield, WI.