Often when Americans think of vocational education they tend to rather look down on it. Particularly for Americans from professional backgrounds, voc-tech signifies manual labor and the sort of classes students take when they’re not going to go to college, and when they don’t really have any options.

The reality is more complicated. And a little more inspiring. It turns out students who attend vocational high schools often matriculate at 4-year colleges.

According to a piece in the Boston Globe:

Once viewed as a place for student slackers with no college ambition, Massachusetts vocational high schools are increasing academic standards, offering honors classes, and producing more college-bound students than ever before.

During the past five years, the percentage of vocational school graduates attending four-year colleges rose at schools across the state, including Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School in Easton, Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlborough, and Joseph P. Keefe Regional Technical School in Framingham.

The article explained that at two of the vocational schools, four-year college enrollment increased from about 15 percent to nearly 30 percent in the last five years.

That’s because, while “vocational” might be in the name, the real subjects taught at the school are demanding and intellectual. They’re just practical, too. Many vocational schools are heavily math and science focused, for instance, and students who attend such schools are perfectly capable of succeeding in demanding bachelor of science programs.

It’s unclear what’s driving this. It may be that companies are just demanding more education for the same jobs. As the article put it, “employers are requiring a higher level of education for many of the fastest-growing career sectors, such as information technology, environmental studies, engineering, biotechnology, and health care.”

But vocational high schools are getting better, too. And the graduates of voc-tech schools seem perfectly capable of succeeding in college.

This is a point often made by education reformers, for instance. The skills necessary for success in good vocational jobs are the same damn things you need to succeed in college.

Indeed, it appears many students seek out vocational programs simply because such programs are a good way to find focused, high quality classes to learn the material that interests them.

It doesn’t just mean wood shop anymore. Now it means chemistry and calculus.

But then, maybe the voc-tech kids have known that for years. It’s only now that we’re started to try to pay attention to the success of all high school student that we’re figuring out lots of vocational programs are good.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer