College, Tech Pay Similar

COLLEGE graduates earn only slightly higher salaries than graduates of vocational or technical high schools, according to a recent study.

"Many people attend college because they believe that it is the automatic expressway to high-paying careers," says Kenneth Gray, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who conducted the study. "With the skyrocketing costs of a college education, more people deserve to know that a degree does not offer guarantees."

"Past research has shown a significant difference in favor of people with the baccalaureate," says Charles Benson, director of the National Center for Research in Vocational Education at the University of California, Berkeley.

But Dr. Gray's current study suggests that choosing technical or vocational high school curricula may be a more effective and less costly route to a high-paying career.

Using a national sample of more than 3,000 1972 high school graduates, the study compared the 1986 earnings of vocational-education students with the salaries of college graduates. "The net yearly gain just from getting a four-year college degree was $207," Gray says.

"However, in certain professions there is a payoff," he says. College graduates employed as professionals in the manufacturing, communications, or public administration sectors do earn significantly more than vocational-school graduates.

"This is not to say that getting a high-paying job is the only reason to get a baccalaureate," Gray says. "People just need to know that the return on their investment is getting increasingly shaky. Growing numbers of people will never recoup the lost earnings, plus a lot of families are spending their bottom dollar or mortgaging their homes for college educations."

There's unpredictability for vocational high school graduates as well. "Nationally, only 27 percent of all kids who major in an occupation at the high school level ever ... work in a related field," says Larry Rosenstock, director of Rindge School of Technical Arts in Cambridge, Mass. And few people are advising students to drop the idea of college. "My son is a freshman in college, and I would counsel him to stay there," he says.

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