Career Classroom: Vo-tech high school graduates set record with 250 associate degrees earned

Again this year, New Jersey’s county vocational-technical schools have set a record for the number of graduates who earned an associate degree at the same time as their high school diploma: 250. That figure represents a sizable jump from last year’s total of 216 and reflects the tremendous accomplishment of this year’s class to accumulate two years’ worth of college credits while in high school.

Over just four years, the number of New Jersey county vocational-technical school students to earn an associate degree has nearly doubled. According to Michael Dicken, superintendent of Gloucester County Institute of Technology and president of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, students and their families are becoming increasingly aware of opportunities provided by these county schools to earn college credits at little or no cost to them.

“The idea of saving both time and money while moving toward college and career success is appealing for all high school students, as well as the parents and guardians who support them,” added Dicken. “Earning credits while in high school is both practical and productive — two defining characteristics of a county vocational-technical school education.” 

At just 16 years old, Maximous Masih has earned 71 college credits and a high school diploma as a graduate of Sussex County Technical School’s engineering program. He maximized his opportunity to get a head start by taking courses over the past two summers to graduate in two years.

“I’m now able to market myself as both a high school and college graduate at only 16, having a concrete level of education that few people my age have, especially in engineering science,” Masih said. “It gets my foot in the door when talking to companies about possible employment opportunities, and it gives me a leg up on my peers.”

Masih will intern in a computer-aided design role this summer before attending Purdue University’s John Martinson Honors College in the fall.

To increase opportunities for students to pursue similar accelerated paths, New Jersey’s county vocational-technical schools continue to establish or expand partnerships with community colleges to offer dual-credit options, with college-level courses integrated with a high school CTE program.

All 21 county vocational-technical schools in New Jersey enable students to earn credit for college-level work while still in high school. Some programs build upon the credits offered with additional coursework completed on students’ own time; others are specifically designed to support students in earning their associate degrees. 

Sophia Datz, a graduate from Gloucester County Institute of Technology’s allied health program, said she seized the opportunity to take courses at nearby Rowan College of South Jersey at a discounted rate. But, beyond the cost savings, she appreciated the “feeling of preparedness” she got from taking college-level courses, often alongside college students.

She also said the courses she took enabled her to “go beyond just introductory courses” to get into the material she needs to cover along her journey to becoming a physician. “My goal is to now go on to college on a pre-med track as a biology major and then go to medical school. I already have a head start with credits, and I learned about different fields within medicine in my high school program, so I am already interested in radiology or orthopedics.”

Of the 250 students graduating from a county vocational-technical high school this month with associate degrees, 66 students are from Cumberland County Technical Education Center. Bergen County Technical School District had the next highest number, with 35 students, followed by Ocean County Vocational Technical School, with 34 students, Essex County Schools of Technology, with 24, Somerset County Vocational and Technical Schools, with 22, Camden County Technical Schools, with 21, Gloucester County Institute of Technology, with 14, Salem County Vocational Technical School District, with 12, Hudson County Schools of Technology, with 11, Mercer County Technical Schools, with four, Sussex County Technical School, with three, and Middlesex County Magnet Schools and Morris County Vocational School District, both with two.

Cumberland County Technical Education Center has consistently had the highest number of county vocational-technical school graduates who have earned an associate degree while in high school. The district developed the Early College High School program in partnership with RCSJ to provide a clear and accessible route for students to take to earn college credits during their four years at CCTEC. Students earn credits both through advanced high school courses and in college courses they take outside of the traditional school day. All tuition fees and course materials are paid for by CCTEC.

“We developed this program to assist students in Cumberland County, the poorest county in the state, by eliminating some of the financial burden that comes with postsecondary education,” said CCTEC Superintendent Dina Rossi. “In doing so, we are closely adhering to our district’s mission, which is to provide all students with a pathway into the global workforce and advanced educational options.”

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This series on education and industry is presented by the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.