The Ultimate Guide to Trade & Vocational Schools

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Exploring the Advantages and Opportunities in Career-focused Education

Today’s economy demands a skilled, trained and educated workforce and completing a degree or certificate program has become a requirement for more and more occupations. In fact, research from the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University projected that by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the United States will require some type of postsecondary education. Vocational and career-oriented schools offer a specialized education for students who have specific career goals. Unlike community colleges and more general education avenues, students are able to focus solely on their career choice and receive training in the field.


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Best Vocational Trade Schools

Students seeking professional training can choose from any number of vocational and trade schools. From community colleges to career schools to trade schools, popular programs include nursing engine mechanics and culinary arts. To help choose the right school for you, review the following best accredited trade and vocational schools for 2018-2019. The schools are ranked based on a variety of factors, including student to teacher ratio, tuition rate and the availability of financial aid.

4 Year Colleges

  1. Washburn Institute of Technology

    Topeka, KS



    Washburn Institute of Technology, also known as Washburn Tech, is a public 2-year technical college located in Topeka, Kansas affiliated with and administered by Washburn University. Washburn Tech offers a wide range of career-focused certificate and certification programs in advanced manufacturing, business, computer and networking technology, construction, drafting and design, health care, hospitality and human services, and transportation. Specific programs of note include welding, legal office professional, commercial and heavy construction, electrical technology, emergency medical technician (EMT), automotive service technician, and many others. Enrollees must take and pass an entrance exam or, alternatively, submit qualifying scores from ACT, SAT, PSAT or one of several other testing services, or submit transcripts indicating an earned associate's or bachelor's degree. Graduation requirements and tuition costs vary by individual program. Program lengths also vary, lasting from 1 semester up to 2 years. Classes are offered on campus Monday through Friday in either full-day or part-day sessions, or both. Additionally, in partnership with ed2go, Washburn Tech's Division of Continuing Education offers access to dozens of online, synchronous, instructor-led 6-week personal development, skills training and certification programs in a variety of study fields. Tuition fees for these courses are the same for both Kansas and out-of-state residents.

  2. Brigham Young University-Provo

    Provo, UT



    Brigham Young University is a private, not-for-profit university owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offering undergraduate and graduate degree programs in dozens of fields of study. BYU offers 2 bachelor's degree programs that fall under into the category of vocation-related education: a Bachelor of Science in Construction and Facilities Management Construction Management, and Bachelor of Science in Construction and Facilities Management Facilities Management. Both degree programs are available exclusively on BYU's Provo campus, although some general education courses are offered online. Students should expect to devote 4 years of full-time study to complete either degree program. In addition to the construction management degrees, BYU offers both Emergency Medical Technicianand Advanced Emergency Medical Techniciancertification courses through its Continuing Education department. The EMT course is 120 hours in length with an additional 12 hours of hands-on experience in a clinical setting. The Advanced EMT is 140 hours long and consists of online didactic instruction and in-class projects, skills labs and case studies. EMT Certification is a prerequisite to taking the Advance EMT course.

  3. Pamlico Community College

    Grantsboro, NC



    Pamlico Community College is a 2-year public college located in Grantsboro, North Carolina offering a variety of general education and vocation/trade-related associate degree, diploma and certificate programs and courses. Fields of study include: cosmetology; dental laboratory technology; electrical systems technology; electroneurodiagnostic technology; esthetics; medical assisting; medical office administration; office administration; and welding. All programs are offered exclusively on campus, although some general education courses, for associate degree students, for example, are available online. Admission/course requirements, program lengths and tuition costs vary by program. In most cases, associate degree programs will require 4 semesters of full-time study, diplomas between 2 and 3 semesters of full-time study, and certificates between 1 and 2 semesters of full-time study.

  4. Cox College

    Springfield, MO



    Cox College is a small, private college located in Springfield, Missouri that offers undergraduate and graduate degrees and certificates exclusively in the health care field. Vocation-related programs include: Associate of Science in Nursing (leading to a career as a Licensed Practical Nurse); Associate of Science in Radiology; Bachelor of Science in Diagnostic Imaging; and Associate of Science in Medical Assisting. All programs are offered in a hybrid study format combining both online and on-campus coursework. Admission/course requirements and program lengths vary by program, but associated degree programs can typically be completed with 2 to 3 years of full-time study, and the BS in Diagnostic Imaging normally require 4 years of study. In addition to vocation-related degrees, Cox College offers a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing, and Master's of Science degrees in Nursing, Occupational Therapy, and Nutrition Diagnostics/Dietetic Internship. A wide range of continuing education and life support courses, conferences and seminars are also available through Cox's Continuing Education Center.

  5. Salina Area Technical College

    Salina, KS



    Located in Salina, Kansas, Salina Area Technical College is a 2-year public institution offering associate degrees, diplomas and certificates in a wide range of vocational- and trade-related fields. Subjects include allied health (including emergency medical technician), auto collision repair, commercial truck driving, construction technology, dental assistant, electrical technology, HVAC, medical assistant and practical nursing, among others. All programs are available on-campus. Many programs are presented with multiple exit points, each with its own length, requirements and resulting credential. For example, students interested in SATC's HVAC program can choose between earning a Technical Certificate (a 2-semester program consisting of technical and advanced technical coursework) or an Associate of Applied Science degree (a 4-semester program consisting of the same 2 semesters of technical and advanced technical courses plus 2 semester of general education coursework). Federal, state and private financial aid resources are available to qualifying students, as well as tuition payment plans. SATC additionally offers a large number of scholarship opportunities.

  6. University of Oklahoma-Norman Campus

    Norman, OK



    The University of Oklahoma-Norman is one of the largest public universities in the U.S., preparing its students for careers in practically every professional field imaginable. Students interested in a vocational career will find several options available at OU Norman, primarily in the form of undergraduate pre-professional programs. Pre-professional programs at OU allow students working on a bachelor's degree, normally in a closely related field, to complete a set of courses in preparation of continuing on to earning a graduate degree in a specific profession. However, a student may be able to complete a bachelor's degree and corresponding pre-professional course curriculum and move directly on to obtaining licensure and employment in their chosen field. Pre-professional programs available at OU include Medical Imaging and Radiation Sciences, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Law, Physician Associate and Pharmacy. All pre-professional programs are taught on-campus and normally require 4 years of full-time study. In addition to these pre-professional programs, there are 2 additional vocation-related programs available at OU: the Department of Medical Imaging and Radiation Sciences' fully online Bachelor's in Radiation Sciences degree-completion program; and the College of Law's on-campus Legal Assistant certificate program, which is designed to prepare students for careers as legal assistants and paralegals. The legal assistant program is offered in 2 formats: 2-year, 6-semester regular format, and 4-semester fast track format. Both formats require summer session attendance.

  7. Altierus Career College

    Tampa, FL



    Altierus Career College is a private, not-for-profit multi-campus institution offering a variety of vocational- and trade-related education options. Altierus's Tampa, Florida campus is currently home to 6 diploma programs, including: Electrician; Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC); Massage Therapy; Medical Assistant; Medial Billing and Coding; and Pharmacy Technician. Additionally, Altierus's Tampa campus offers a Surgical Technologist associate's degree. All programs include on-campus hands-on training, with some programs supplemented with online coursework. Program lengths vary from 33 to 36 weeks in length, with the exception of the Surgical Technologist program, which requires 96 weeks. Terms for most programs begin every 5 weeks. Tuition costs also vary by specific program. Financial aid in the form of institutional grants and scholarships is available to qualifying students through the Zenith Student Grant program. Contact the Tampa campus for more information on the Zenith Student Grant and other financial aid opportunities. Altierus Career College is accredited nationally by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC).

  8. Central Louisiana Technical Community College

    Alexandria, LA



    Serving 10 parishes on 8 campuses Central Louisiana Technical Community College (CLTCC) is a 2-year institution offering associate degrees, diplomas and certificates to prepare students for a wide range of highly skilled, high-paying, in-demand vocational and trade careers. There are currently 16 campus-based career and technical programs available in fields such as air conditioning and refrigeration, automotive technology, carpentry, cosmetology, electrician technology and patient care technician, among others. Each program has its own set of requirements and resulting credentials. For example, the Air Conditioning & Refrigeration program offers three competency credentials (Technical Competency Area, Certificate of Technical Studies, and Technical Diploma), while the Cosmetology program offers 2 competency credentials (Technical Competency Area, and Technical Diploma). Programs are typically available at 1, 2 or 3 campus locations, with a small number offered on more than 3 campuses. None of these programs are available online. Program completion lengths vary depending on several factors, including specific program and exit point, as well as the individual student's chosen workload. CLTCC additionally offers a number of non-credit online career-training programs through its partnership with ed2go. Subjects include electrical technician, HVACR technician, medical administrative assistant with medical billing and coding, paralegal, and many others. Coursework is asynchronous, but all program work must be completed within a specified time (3 months, 6 months, 12 months, etc.) Programs vary in length and cost. Tuition rates are the same for Louisiana residents and out-of-state students.

  9. James Madison University

    Harrisonburg, VA



    James Madison University is a public research university located in the Shenandoah Valley in Harrisonburg, Virginia. JMU offers 2 vocational-related options: a Paralegal Studies Certificate, and an undergraduate Pre-Occupational Therapy program. JMU's Paralegal Studies Certificate is available fully online. The program is designed for working adults currently employed as legal assistants or staff, as well as career changers with little or no legal experience. This is a synchronous formatted program, meaning that students login to live, instructor-led classes twice a week. Admission requirements include a previously earned undergraduate degree or 4 years of professional work experience (not necessarily in the legal field). JMU's paralegal program is an assessment-based certificate program and not a certification program. Certification is not needed to work as a paralegal in Virginia, but may be required in other states. Students intending paralegal employment outside of Virginia's borders should contact their state's bar association for details on certification requirements. JMU's Pre-Occupational Therapy program is a bachelor degree-level program that is neither a major or minor, but rather a curriculum of undergraduate courses to be taken in conjunction with earning a bachelor's degree in another major field of study. The Pre-Occupational Therapy program is typically completed by those students intending to continue their educations and earn a Master's in Occupational Therapy but may be completed with the intention of seeking the necessary licensure for employment as an occupational therapist without earning an MOT. As with most bachelor's degrees, this exclusively on-campus program normally requires 4 years of full-time study. Coursework consists of classes in a variety of related subjects including biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, the social sciences and more.

  10. University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

    Minneapolis, MN



    Through its College of Continuing & Professional Studies, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities offers several undergraduate degrees and certificates in vocational fields. Certificate programs include Construction Management, Facility Management, Health Services Management, Interpreting and Manufacturing Operations Management. Bachelor's degree programs include Construction Management, Health Services Management and Manufacturing Facility Management. All 3 bachelor degree programs are fully aligned with their certificate counterparts, which means students can apply all credit hours earned in the certificate program to the corresponding bachelor's program. Programs are offered in a variety of online/in-class formats. For example, Manufacturing Operations Management Certificate students can choose between blended classroom/online and fully online study options, while students working on an Interpreting Certificate may complete all courses either online or on-campus, or through a combination of both. On-campus classes are often available both during the day and in the evening. Tuition costs vary depending on the credit hour requirements of the specific program. Out-of-state students pay a higher tuition rate for these programs than Minnesota residents.

Popular Vocational Programs

Vocational Trade Schools Learning Center

What are Vocational and Trade Schools?

As defined by the U.S. Department of Education, career schools are also known as vocational, trade, or technical schools. These institutions may be non-profit or for-profit, public or private, and generally offer career-focused training programs that are two years or less. However, there is a slight difference between the curriculum of technical and vocational schools. Technical schools focus on a broader academic approach, teaching students about the principles of the field of study. Vocational schools often concentrate more on practical, hands-on skill building for specific occupational fields.

Beyond special vocational and technical colleges, students may also access career and technical education (CTE) at other institutions, such as the following:

  • Community colleges (two-year, public colleges)
  • Private two-year colleges
  • Public and private four-year universities
  • Regional training centers
  • Adult workforce education centers
  • Industry groups

CTE provides students with access to both occupational and non-occupational instruction in a variety of subjects and areas of interest. As sub-baccalaureate programs of study, CTE allows students to earn a certificate, credential, diploma, or complete coursework in preparation for a licensing examination. Although some CTE programs allow students to transition into an associate or bachelor’s degree, most CTE programs are terminal and, therefore, do not include transferable credits.

Instructional programs that highlight academic education (liberal arts, English, mathematics, physical sciences, performing arts, social sciences, humanities, behavioral sciences) are deemed not to be CTE in nature. Generally speaking, CTE teaches students specialized skills to pursue specific careers fields and is divided into 16 career clusters.

  • Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources
  • Architecture & Construction
  • A/V Technology & Film
  • Business Management & Administration
  • Education & Training
  • Finance
  • Government & Public Administration
  • Health Sciences
  • Hospitality & Tourism
  • Human Services
  • Information Technology
  • Law, Public Safety, Corrections & Security
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • Planning
  • Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics

Vocational & Trade School In-Depth

Before enrolling in a vocational or trade school program, it’s important to learn the details, including the potential salary for your desired industry, who offers programs, and the pros and cons you might encounter along the way. See what many of today’s vocational programs have in store for future students.

Vocational School vs. Four-Year College

Vocational SchoolFour-Year College
Degree TypesDiploma, Certificate, Associate, Vocational CoursesAssociate, Bachelor’s, Master’s, Doctorate, Post-Baccalaureate Certificate
Curricula FocusVocational & Technical Training, Clinical & Professional ExperienceAcademic, General Education, Liberal Arts & Sciences
Length of Program3 – 24 months2 – 8+ years
DemographicsNon-Traditional, Older, Returning StudentsTypically 18 – 24 year olds
Admissions RequirementsHigh School Diploma or GED, Course Prerequisites, GPA RequirementsHigh School Diploma or GED, Standardized Test Scores, Minimum GPA Requirements, Letters of Recommendation, Admissions Essay

Pros & Cons

During the past three decades, vocational education has become a respected approach for career preparation, providing students the opportunity to study and learn in context–that is, develop skills specific to an occupational field. As policymakers and educators alike focus on the commitment to building a qualified and skilled workforce, the importance of vocational education as a quality pathway to career success will only increase. However, prior to enrolling in any vocational program, prospective students should examine both the positives and potential drawbacks to completing an occupational degree, credential, certificate, or diploma. PROS Increased Market Competitiveness.

Vocational education is directly aligned with a graduate’s market competitiveness as it prepares them for a specific occupation or specialized vocation. Improved Career Opportunities.

Salary data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) both reveal one important point: Education pays. In 2013, individuals with an associate degree earned 19.3 percent more per week than those with only a high school diploma. And, individuals with an associate degree have unemployment rates of approximately 5.4 percent, compared to 7.5 percent for those with a high school diploma. Shorter Programs.

Bachelor’s degrees typically require at least four years of full-time study to complete, while vocational programs can generally be finished between three to 24 months of study, depending on the subject matter and specific program. CONS Stigma.

Although a important and growing part of the education sector–and workforce–vocational programs still deal with a general stigma, with some viewing them as lesser options than four-year academic programs offered at universities. Limited Career Flexibility.

Because of their career-specific nature, many vocational programs can actually limit career flexibility in two ways: 1) they do not transfer to future four-year academic programs and 2) they may not be accepted as an educational requirement for employment in advanced related fields, like an academic degree. Lower Average Salaries.

Although a vocational education can lead to better earning potential, individuals with associate degrees still earn less than those with a bachelor’s degree (31.2 percent less). In 2013, the average salary of an individual with an associate degree was $35,720.

Before Enrolling

  • Success rate. The success of an institution’s students is a direct reflection of its quality. Prospective students should get an understanding of the following three statistics: admission rate, graduation rate, and job placement. High admission rates may indicate the program is not competitive, while low graduation rates may mean instruction is low quality. And, low job placement may reveal the institution does not properly prepare graduates for career success.
  • Program cost. For many students, the top priority is the program cost. However, cost is not solely determined by tuition alone. Are there technology or lab fees? Do students need to pay for additional equipment or software? What are the average book costs? Getting a sense of the total cost of attendance can help prospective students make a practical decision regarding their educational investment.
  • Accreditation. Generally speaking, accreditation is a vital–but often overlooked–factor of the review phase. Accreditation means the college or institute has invested time and effort to meet quality, success, and educational guidelines set forth by accrediting agencies. Secondly, many certification and licensing agencies for specific professional areas of practice (e.g. diagnostic medical sonography, medical coding, etc.) require students to graduate from an accredited program of study. While the Department of Education does not accredit programs directly, it does maintain a list of approved accrediting bodies for post-secondary institutions and programs. Students can review the Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs for more information.
  • Admission requirements. Not every institution or vocational program requires the same admissions materials or requirements. Before enrolling, students should ask about the program’s admissions process. Does the program require a high school diploma or GED? Do students need professional experience in the field to be admitted? Are standardized testing scores necessary?
  • Instructor Background. The success of any program hinges on the quality of the faculty and instructional staff. For the particular area of study (e.g. medical assisting), students should review the academic background and professional experience of the faculty. Do they have training and degrees in that field of practice? What certifications do they possess? How long have they worked in that specialty?

Quick Facts

Individuals with a vocational associate degree or certificate earns between $4,000 and $19,000 more than those with a liberal arts/humanities degree Source: Association for Career & Technical Education More than 1.3 million vocational degrees, diplomas, and certificates were awarded in 2013Source: National Center for Education Statistics Half of all STEM job openings are open to graduates with less than a bachelor’s degree Source: The Brookings Institution

FAQs: Interview with Sean Lynch, Legislative and Public Affairs Manager

Sean Lynch is the Legislative and Public Affairs Manager for the Association for Career and Technical Education located in Alexandria, Virginia. He shared his thoughts on CTE, trends in vocational education, and why vocational education is a valid and beneficial form of post-secondary training.

What is the role of ACTE and why is it important for prospective students to know about/connect with ACTE?

ACTE is the largest national nonprofit association dedicated to CTE professionals, including educators, administrators, career and guidance counselors and others connected to the CTE community. Our role is to advance education that will prepare students of all ages for success in their careers, including through advocating for effective federal policy, building public awareness and sharing best practices and resources with professionals in the field.

Could you describe the current trends in vocational education?

One thing that we are seeing increasingly is engagement among the employer community with CTE programs, because they recognize that these are a critical part of their efforts to bridge the skills gap. According to the Manpower Group Talent Shortage Survey published in 2014, 25 percent of employers stated that the reason they could not fill existing job openings is a lack of applicants with necessary workplace competencies–things like teamwork, critical thinking, and creative problem solving. As employers are realizing that CTE programs can teach technical skills (which were also cited as a challenge among applicants) relevant to 21st century careers and these employability skills that are in high-demand, I think we’re seeing a trend toward stronger partnerships forming across these two communities.

Vocational education seems to have a somewhat negative connotation, e.g. that it is only for working-class kids and adults. Is that necessarily the case?

I’m glad this question got raised, because it is an important one. When many people hear about career and technical education (or Vocational Education), they often envision a dirty facility in the back of the school. CTE programs have made enormous strides to ensure relevancy and earn their place as a component of every student’s education, regardless of their background. CTE engages students and gets them excited about learning, helps them apply their academics in a hands-on way and lets them explore their potential career interests so they can have a meaningful discussion with their parents and counselors about what postsecondary plans make the most sense for their chosen career field–whether that’s a two- or four-year degree, other credential or entering the workforce.

What are the general benefits of a CTE education?

CTE provides a really unique way for students to apply their academic curriculum in a context of their career goal–so a student who might struggle to conceptualize the slope of a line may find it easier when that’s the pitch of a roof. It engages students with relevant, real-world learning opportunities, which 81 percent of dropouts report would have kept them in high school. And it helps students to have productive dialogues with their families and career and guidance counselors about where they are going in their career path and what steps they need to take to get there–about 6 out of 10 students in CTE programs report that they intend to continue on in that career field, and the others are still gaining technical and employability training and readying themselves for their future.

Do you have any advice for prospective students considering a CTE/vocational education?

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of working with career and guidance counselors to make a plan for your education that includes CTE, no matter what your postsecondary plans are–there has been a great emphasis on spreading the message that CTE is for all students, and we’re seeing a stronger understanding of how it can fit into every educational experience.

In light of the White House’s push for greater access to post-secondary education, how do you/ACTE feel CTE and vocational education fit into the mix of options?

I think the White House’s efforts are really getting at the need to overcome the skills gap, particularly in a lot of high-growth, critical industries that are instrumental in ensuring our continued economic growth and competitiveness. We’ve all heard the statistics about this–that middle skill careers are growing and a significant part of the economy. And it’s critical that we prepare students today for the 55 million jobs that will be created by 2020–including the 30 percent of those that are going to require some college education or a two-year degree.

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