Increasingly, the U.S. is becoming aware of students disproportionately choosing four-year universities over vocational schools, creating a gap in qualified workers in a number of fields. As the demand for trade workers rises alongside the cost of education, more prospective students are seeing the appeal of attending trade school. Continue reading to find an analysis of vocational school’s benefits, as well as pertinent information regarding education costs, career profitability and employment rates.
Both trade school and traditional college educations can reap rewards for their graduates, but they differ in many areas, including fields of study, price tag, program length and even the types of learners they attract.
Trade school students can expect to spend about two years on a degree or less on an accelerated track or for a certificate. The cost of a trade school education will vary widely but is less expensive overall than a four-year degree, with the national average net price of a two-year education at a public institution sitting at $7,351 per year. Fields of study include subjects ranging from automotive service technology and bookkeeping to web design, management and practical nursing.
Traditional colleges and universities take four years, more or less, for completion of a bachelor’s degree. The national net price average for a four-year public college is $12,272 per year. That’s almost $5,000 per year over the cost of trade school, amounting to an average total difference in public higher education net price of more than $34,000. Fields of study include subjects such as journalism, biology, engineering and computer science.
Many times, people overlook trade schools in favor of four-year colleges or universities, bypassing a beneficial educational opportunity. Not only is it cheaper to attend vocational schools, but graduates are also quicker to enter the workforce and can be set up for certain very lucrative careers. Find out more about the perks of choosing a vocational school over traditional college learning.
A four-year college’s academic setting and education is not for everyone. Some people excel in hands-on settings while they may lose interest in a strictly academic environment. For other recent high school graduates leaving home for the first time, a four-year university can be more of a distraction than an asset, especially if a student is waffling on their major. “What makes a good vocational student? Soft-skilled, critical-thinking, problem-solving and willingness to learn,” said James Cordova, Automotive Service Technology Department Chair at Pueblo Community College in Pueblo, Colorado. Typically, those entering a vocational school already have a good idea of what they want to study and can get right to work on their career goals. “The majority of the time, I think our students do,” Cordova said, as he described the decisiveness he sees in his automotive service technology students. “What they do is they figure out there’s more to the transportation industry than just the automotive repair side of things.” Regarding two-year versus four-year programs, Cordova said, “They’re both beneficial. It’s two different aspects of what they’re trying to learn in the industry. We are training a hands-on technician to be turnkey ready for the repair side of the industry. The four-year provides students with more in-depth, hands-on information as it relates to business, and they can play a bigger role in which opportunities might open up for them in pursuing the business side of things. So, if it’s a student that’s attending a two-year school, we definitely encourage them to take some business and accounting courses to supplement their automotive training.” In this light, students who may want to continue their studies may do so after earning their degree at a two-year vocational school and may already have applicable credits under their belt and at a lower cost.
Attending vocational school can be much cheaper than studying at a four-year college. The tuition rates at trade schools tend to be less expensive, and along with the shortened time it takes to earn a degree or certificate, financial aid and the possibility of working for pay during internships or apprenticeships, the overall cost of a trade school education becomes even more affordable. The national average for a four-year degree from a public university is more than $8,000 per year. The U.S. Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency Center ranks highest and lowest tuition rates at public, private for-profit and private not-for-profit schools, separated by required years of attendance. At the high end of the scale, a two-year public institution’s tuition runs from $5,600 to $12,000 per year, whereas at the lower end, tuition can be anywhere from $840 per year to $1,300. For a less than two-year public school, tuition started as low as $1,350 per school year. Take into consideration that high school students in a dual enrollment program may be offered heavily discounted courses that then count toward their higher education credits, shortening the time needed for vocational study after high school and again bringing the price point down. In some states, dual enrollment programs may even be offered at no cost.
The length of time it takes to earn a degree or certification is much shorter through a technical school, whose programs usually take two years or less to complete. Cordova said he has seen students earn their degree in as little as 14 months. “If they take the minimum of 12 credits a semester, it will take them two years. If they take 15 credits a semester, it would take them about 18–19 months. If they take anything higher than 15 credits, I’ve seen students finish their degree in 14 months.” Although most vocational education requires in-class, hands-on experience, some classes may be offered online in a more flexible format, making it easier to earn credits around other obligations. The amount of study that can be completed online will vary greatly by school and individual program. In Cordova’s Automotive Service Technology program, he said, “It’s all hands-on and in the classroom. The only thing that could be taken online would be the general education requirements.” The same may be true for many other vocational programs and interested students should check with their school for specifics.
Trade school graduates can enter the workforce more quickly than their four-year college counterparts. These graduates often begin working in their field of study during their school program and therefore already have related job experience and local employment connections before graduation. One of the benefits of attending vocational school over a traditional four-year college Cordova describes is “the opportunity to find employment while they’re attending school as a current student and post graduation. There are definitely employment opportunities while they’re a student. We offer a day and an evening track of courses so the students who work in the industry at day can still obtain their degree at night.” Many vocational schools now offer flexible school schedules, apprenticeship or internship opportunities through their community workplace partnerships and placement services for assistance finding a job after graduation. According to the Pueblo Community College Automotive Service Technology program website, “We offer a paid apprenticeship for high school students through the Automotive Youth Education System (AYES).” Students researching which schools to attend should look for institutions that offer opportunities such as this.
A more affordable education through a vocational school does not necessarily equate to a less lucrative salary in the chosen career field. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics has a thorough breakdown of salaries earned by technical and trade school graduates. For example, a person in the Vehicle and Mobile Equipment Mechanics, Installers and Repairers category makes an average of $26.40 per hour. Workers in the category of Advertising, Marketing, Promotions, Public Relations and Sales Managers make an average of $58.15 per hour. Payroll and Timekeeping Clerks earn an average of $21.58 per hour. BLS has a publication called “High Wages After High School—Without a Bachelor’s Degree” detailing some of the more profitable positions that can be earned through vocational schooling. Many of these popular job positions earn $50,000 to $108,000 per year.
“Reducing the Dropout Rate Through Career and Vocational Training” and “Vocational Education’s Role in Dropout Prevention” give attention to the role of vocational training in high school. Both published on the ERIC (Education Resources Information Center) Digest, sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education, the writing suggests vocational training can help high school students stay in school to graduation and also correlates with the students continuing their vocational training after high school. Many trade schools have a program called dual enrollment, in which high school students can take some of their classes through the technical school or college for both high school and college credit. This perk not only can keep these students interested in school by providing hands-on, real-world practice that validates their learning but also find them already on a path toward their career.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students who were beginning their postsecondary education to earn an occupational certificate in the 2003–2004 school year were, by 2009, employed at a higher rate than those with an academic degree, 86 percent to 82 percent. Of these surveyed, 74 percent of the ones with an occupational certificate were employed within their field, compared to 53 percent with an academic credential. It is safe to say that students of a trade school program are slightly more likely to be employed post-graduation and much more likely to still be in the job field they studied. Those with a specific occupational career goal in mind may be better off at a vocational school than a traditional college or university.
Vocational schools and four-year colleges have accreditations varying by institution and subject. Cordova stressed the importance of checking a school’s accreditation, as some two-year colleges may have accreditation and specialized instructors in specific areas that four-year universities do not. “When you start looking at a two-year school versus a four-year school, the main thing you want to be looking for is a National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF) accredited site, which is industry-based standards when we’re talking core curriculum, training, Automotive Service Excellence, (ASE) certified instructors, that the instructors have the necessary professional development to obtain that accreditation,” Cordova said. While he spoke about his automotive service technology degree program, the same holds for all vocational programs. “Some four-year institutions don’t have that. And more supplemental programs. We are a Super University. We have Snap-on certification through the program, so there are some benefits there that are not offered at the four-year.” Snap-on certification is a type of certification that can be awarded through a school after a student meets the required criteria through coursework and testing. Certificates that can be awarded through schooling are an added bonus for any program, whether at a two-year or four-year college.
Find a sampling of careers, salary potential and a cost comparison of trade versus traditional college schooling, with trade school tuition ranges listed first.
Expected salary: $39,550
Job opportunity in 2016: 749,900 positions
Growth rate: six percent
Cost of school versus college degree: $8,000–$25,000; $15,000–$35,000
Expected salary: $39,240
Job opportunity: 1,730,500 positions
Growth rate: -one percent
Cost of school versus college degree: $5,000–$28,000; $21,000–$60,000
Expected salary: $59,090
Job opportunity: 105,100 positions
Growth rate: 10 percent
Cost of school versus college degree: $9,000–$18,000; $16,000–$60,000
According to the College Affordability and Transparency Center, the following were the average net price during the 2016–17 school year based on each category:
By asking questions, prospective students will be able to choose between trade school and a traditional two- or four-year college to best prepare themselves for their career of choice. Trade school can be much cheaper than college overall and sets its students up for almost immediate employment, but those interested in this type of schooling still have many other factors to consider. Start with the questions below, then do a little research to answer the questions as they apply to the individual student and field of interest.
Further information on trade schools and comparing their schooling with college education comes from a variety of sources, including the Department of Education, a vocational school and a source that serves as a guide to realizing a specialized career goal. The first two resources provide an abundance of links to more specific, field-related organizations and publications. Other additional readings compare vocational and trade schools in a number of ways, and another source outlines how trade school can be an achievable and beneficial objective for military veterans.
James Cordova, Automotive Service Technology Department Chair at Pueblo Community College in Pueblo, Colo., has worked for the college for about 15 years. He is a graduate of this same automotive technology program at PCC.