Lee Blum – The World’s Best Vocational Institute

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“The World’s Best Vocational Institute”

If only $100 million were left in the U.S. government’s budget, it should be allocated towards creating a new, premier, internationally competitive, national vocational university. The recent financial crisis exposed and exacerbated underlying flaws in the nation’s economic foundation. Chief among these are inadequate education for a 21st century workforce, and in turn a decline of the U.S. middle class. Both highly skilled and unskilled labor are available in the U.S., but there is a “skills gap” as identified by a February 2011 Pathways to Prosperity Harvard University study, whereby Americans are simply unqualified to fill middle-class wage jobs. As a result, there is a real likelihood that youth today will experience downward mobility relative to their parents, according to a September 2011 Pew Charitable Trusts report.

These problems are not easy to solve, nor can they be solved with a silver bullet, but a preeminent vocational university is a significant starting point. This new university will focus exclusively on new and growing industries, unlike traditional vocational schools. Vocational education in the United States is generally disregarded because of an associated stigma. However, that same Harvard study found that 27 percent of those with vocational training earned more than those with a traditional Bachelor’s degree. Several nations, such as Singapore and China, derive great value from new age, well developed, vocational education systems. Creating an elite U.S. vocational school can spark a new and vibrant U.S. vocational system.

There are several requirements for an elite vocational institution aimed at eliminating a stigma. First, it must be relatively affordable for Americans to attend. Second, it must graduate intelligent students into fields that need workers and that will grow throughout the next several decades. Third, it must be treated as elite. These goals can be attained in part by creating partnerships with business that lead to employment for graduates, joining with other universities in exchange programs and opportunities for further education, and by maintaining continuous sources of funding to keep attendance costs in line.

As a practical matter, the U.S. Department of Education can allocate the $100 million seed capital to a state through a competitive bidding process. The Department of Education should convene a cross-section of business leaders to determine the institution’s three educational priorities, such as applied science, healthcare, and computer engineering. An independent panel comprised of business leaders, policymakers, and education experts will then select among the qualifying state bids. The winning state will select a location, and will be able to keep excess money if the project is under-budget, but must fund any cost overruns. This process, coupled with a national drive for private donations and funding from tuition, can bring this idea to fruition.

The creation of a renowned, revered, and cutting-edge vocational institute does not purport to be an instant or easy fix for the nation’s economic woes. However, it can be a launching pad for reinvigorating the American workforce, making America attractive for businesses, and reestablishing a shrinking middle class.


Read other finalist essays for the GovLoop/NASPAA Scholarship.

– Evan White – “Promise Neighborhoods for a Promising Future”

– Mark Van Horn – “Using Computer Games to Simulate Policy Problems in the United States”

– Mauricio Cifuentes – “The Social Innovation Fund: Implementing Effective Bottom-up Solutions”

– Jay Sher – “Federal R&D Prizes for Technological Investment and Innovation”

– Danny Vasconcellos – “Government Getting it Right: The GAO”

– Kevin Sonoff – “Primary and Secondary Education: The Path to Recovery”

– Maggie Healy – “Funding the Information Age, Beyond Infrastructure”

– Alex Luboff – “A Fiscal, Social, and Environmental Sustainability: Urban Agriculture Fighting Poverty”

– Joseph Towner – “Community Service Grants”

– Elizabeth Selbst – “Fund Local Land Banking to Reverse Urban Sprawl”

– Neil Patrick Reilly – “A Boost to Rentals and Public Housing”

– Brian Footer – “Local Government Grant Program”

– Peter Thomas – “Government Knowing Its Constituents”

– Daniel Turner – “Invest in the Future”

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Neil Bonner

Why should the government create “a new, premier, internationally competitive, national vocational university”? Can the government run a national university better than a not-for-profit or for-profit corporation? No thanks.

Max Blum

Mr. Bonner – “Create” is not equivalent to “Run.” Nowhere did the essay indicate that the government should run the operations of this institution. The essay also provides for an important private-sector role in the creation and running of this institution.

This is an important distinction that you failed to make because the free market has yet to create a type of premier vocational institution, which is either an indication that it is a poor financial investment or not feasible through the private sector. However, not-for-profit educational institutes do not have profit-maximization as their sole objective so your implication that there is no role for government in at least initiating the creation of a vocational institute is based on a false assumption that if the private-sector has not done it, then it should not be done.

Look to the UofCalifornia system or the University of Michigan or Binghmaton University. Or, consider all of the nation’s land grant institutions such as Cornell University that came into existence through government programs. Government helped to spark the creation of these institutions, yet it is not involved in daily operations, and there is no reason to believe this cannot be true of a vocational institute.

Neil Bonner

I certainly agree with the fundamental idea of this essay that we need excellent vocational institutions. Too many take the path to college while a path towards a great vocational education may be better suited for them.

My only quibble has to do with the role of the federal government in this process. Money has a way of becoming politicized. Look at the latest example — Solyndra, a $528M fiasco grant from the Dept. of Energy. The private sector (including not-for-profit corporations) are the most efficient in allocating money.

Donating land to a cause like this I fully support. The US Government holds way too much of the nations land that could be better used in the creation of a premier vocational institution, for example.