Nearly 30,000 students in 2017 applied for a spot at a county vocational-technical high school in New Jersey.

Primarily due to space constraints, the state's 60-plus schools could only welcome 12,974.

So while the demand for vocational school programs continues to grow among students interested in getting a head-start towards college or a career, these specialty schools in the Garden State are turning away more students they can accept.

But legislation advanced this month by a state Senate panel aims to devote hundreds of millions of dollars to help these schools expand their career and technical education offerings, as long as New Jersey residents green-light the move.

Sponsored by Republicans and Democrats, including Sen. President Stephen Sweeney, the measure would authorize the issuance of $750 million in bonds to benefit county vocational school districts ($450M), school security ($250M) and county colleges ($50M). It would be up to New Jersey voters to give the go-ahead on the new borrowing.

The move would benefit students looking for a vocational seat, as well as companies searching for workers with specific skills, according to Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.

"Employers need to know that they're going to be able to replace their retiring workers with young people who have both the technical skills and the general work readiness skills that they need," Savage said.

The graduation rate among county vocational schools topped 97 percent in 2017, according to the Council. The statewide graduation rate, according to the Department of Education, was 90.5 percent.

"And I think that's because the students who come to a county vocational school are engaged, they're challenged, they're excited by what they're learning every day," Savage said.

Twelve percent of students who graduated in 2016 from a vocational school in New Jersey transferred straight to employment. About three-quarters went off to college or additional technical training.

Most vocational schools in the state offer full-time enrollment. Students experience traditional high school academic and elective courses, but spend a third of the day exploring a specific field.

Top 10 career programs in 2015-16 (by enrollment):

  1. Health sciences
  2. Communication, arts and digital media
  3. Culinary arts
  4. Finance and business
  5. Construction and technical trades
  6. Engineering
  7. Automotive & transportation technology
  8. Performing arts
  9. Computer science and IT
  10. Cosmetology

The 21 county vocational-technical school districts have experienced a 34 percent spike in enrollment from 2000 to 2016. They currently serve more than 33,000 students.

Savage said the trend can be attributed partly to parents and students who are increasingly concerned about the high cost of a college education. There's a "huge value added," she said, when students can enroll in college-level courses and earn credits towards a degree while still in high school.

"I think outdated perceptions about vocational schools ... have really faded away," she added. "And people now realize that a county vocational school is a great option for all kinds of students."

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