This article originally appeared January 24, 2020 in the Burlington County Times.
WESTAMPTON — Enrollment and applications are on the rise at the county’s technical schools.
Students who choose the career and technical education path at Burlington County Institute of Technology, with campuses in Medford and Westampton, have said the opportunity for advanced studies in specialized programs is giving them a jump start on their careers, allowing them to work with teachers who’ve worked in their fields, and helping them get ahead on college credits.
For some, it’s also a way to bypass college entirely by earning certifications and working with the schools’ community business partners before graduating.
“In response to a master strategic plan, market conditions and a parental focus on return on investment compared to student debt, BCIT has positioned itself as a state of the art solution for students to earn up to two years of college credit, multiple industry credentials and on-the-job experiences prior to graduating, with little or no debt,” Superintendent Christopher Nagy explained. “This is extremely attractive for the newest generation who will walk the halls of BCIT.”
This past year has seen a record number of applicants to the schools, which usually accept about 650 students overall, according to Michele Hill, the district’s communications and admissions coordinator.
By January 2020, 739 middle schoolers had applied to the technical high schools, an increase from the 621 who applied by January 2019, and just 421 the year before. The schools’ total enrollment has steadily increased from 2,016 in the 2016-17 school year to 2,100 in the current year.
According to the district, the largest percentage of students comes from Burlington City, Edgewater Park and Willingboro at the Westampton campus, and from Pemberton and Maple Shade at the Medford campus. Costs associated with attending BCIT, including transportation, are covered by sending school districts. The estimated cost per student was $16,915 in BCIT’s 2019-20 budget.
Among the students getting ahead on their career goals is Nairobi McNeil, a senior from Willingboro looking to become a dental assistant.
“Our teacher is a dental assistant herself, and she takes it upon herself to take us on trips,” McNeil explained. “She even took us to a dental convention in New York, so we could meet and interact with actual dentists. We’re already taking the tests so we can be ranked as an assistant when we graduate.”
Gina Dauber, a sophomore from Bordentown studying architectural drafting, added, “Each day you get better at what you do, especially in programs we use. The more experience you have, the better off you are when you’re looking for future jobs.”
Sometimes, studying at a technical school means heading straight into the workforce, but students said that tech school does not necessarily rule out college. Instead, it equips students with additional experience and expertise to make them competitive candidates for degrees in the future, or allows them to finish a degree faster.
But for some, the possibility of bypassing college is an appealing factor in choosing a vocational program.
“I saw high school I could go right out of and right into work, without going to college and going into student debt,” said Shaun Fisher, a junior from Lumberton who studies in the auto shop. “You learn something really important in the world that not many people do.”
The schools offer traditional vocational programs such as automotive repair, manufacturing, culinary arts and cosmetology, but some of the most popular programs, according to the school, are performing arts, fashion, entertainment technology, allied health, and law and public safety. The teachers have worked in the fields themselves, whether they’ve been police officers, hair stylists or dental hygienists.
Students said they’re defeating the old-fashioned notion that vocational tech schools are an alternative around career and technical education programs,
“There’s this stereotype that if you come here, you don’t want to go to college,” explained Milena Harvey, a senior from Willingboro in the law and public safety program. “If you come here, you’re gaining more knowledge before you go onto college. I’m learning a little more about what I want to do, and what I might major in at college.”
McNeil added, “I used to hear it in middle school. I had a friend whose parents didn’t want her to go to BCIT because they wanted her to go to college, and do the four-year traditional thing. They didn’t understand the beauty of being able to have a job right out of high school. We still take regular classes, and we get into colleges for our academics. It’s not really just a tech school where you only work in a shop.”