The Ultimate Guide to Trade and Vocational Schools

Thomas Broderick
Updated September 15, 2023
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Recent high school graduates and working professionals can enroll in trade school to advance their career. Trade schools offer career-orientated programs. Learners often graduate from vocational schools faster than from universities. In addition to receiving classroom instruction, students gain hands-on experience. High-paying jobs for graduates of vocational school programs include dental hygienist, landscape designer, and boilermaker.

The following sections describe how vocational schools operate. This guide compares vocational school programs to four-year programs. The final section introduces the top four trade and vocational schools in the United States.

What Are Vocational and Trade Schools?

A vocation or trade requires specialized, hands-on training. Some schools use these terms interchangeably. However, other institutions differentiate between trades and vocations. Many trade schools offer associate degrees in addition to certificates and diplomas.

Many vocational schools offer online and hybrid programs. These options often appeal to working professionals. Tuition and fees vary by school and program. Although vocational school programs offer rigorous training, some professions also require an apprenticeship.

Quick Facts About Vocational Schools

People with an associate degree earn a median weekly salary of $904, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those with a high school diploma earn a median of $789 per week.

In 2009, people who focused on career and technical education (CTE) courses in high school earned higher median annual salaries than those who did not participate in CTE, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Of all undergraduate credentials awarded in 2015, 38% were occupational degrees, associate degrees, and occupational certificates, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

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Benefits of a Trade-Focused School

Vocational school programs offer small class sizes and prepare students to quickly begin careers.

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    Students Are Prepared for an Occupation

    Career-focused vocational schools offer professional certificates and diplomas. Majors may include aircraft maintenance technology, culinary arts, and electronics. Students often enroll part time so they can work or raise a family. Learners who have not chosen an occupation can consider an associate degree. An AA or AS qualifies graduates to transfer to a bachelor’s program.
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    Students Can Graduate Quickly

    Typical certificate programs take four semesters to complete, while AS degrees require six semesters. Learners may complete either option sooner by taking more courses per semester or by attending summer classes. Students may also reduce completion time by earning credit for relevant professional experience.
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    Typically Classes Are Smaller

    Most trade schools offer smaller class sizes than four-year schools and community colleges. Vocational school programs typically limit course enrollment to 25 students. Small class sizes usually lead to more one-on-one instruction from professors. This personal attention can help learners struggling with coursework. Small class sizes also promote professional relationships among peers.
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    Students Receive Hands-On Training

    Vocational schools prepare students for careers through extensive hands-on training. Learners receive training in the classroom and on job sites. Students may work in a professional kitchen, salon, or IT center. These experiences allow students to practice skills and network with potential employers.
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    Trade School Costs Less

    Most vocational schools cost much less than two-year and four-year colleges. The lower tuition rate can help students avoid debt and plan for a healthy financial future. Learners may also qualify for federal grants and private scholarships. With financial aid, vocational school programs cost some students nothing out of pocket.

Vocational and Trade School In-Depth

Students choose from vocational school programs in many fields. For example, people studying business office administration take courses in accounting principles, spreadsheets for finance, and office administration. Learners may complete a supervised externship with a local company. Graduates of business office administration programs often become office assistants, secretaries, and office managers.

Most students in vocational school programs take two courses each semester. Learners may graduate in 3-24 months to quickly enter the workforce. Before choosing a major, prospective learners should research projected growth rates in each trade. Selecting a growing profession can lead to additional career opportunities.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides job growth projections for many occupations. The BLS projects demand for makeup artists, cooks, and wind turbine service technicians to grow 37%, 49%, and 68%, respectively, from 2020-2030. Although economic trends may change, learners in these fields can expect to enter a strong job market.

Vocational School vs. Four-Year College

Vocational schools differ significantly from public and private four-year colleges. Students at four-year schools complete general education coursework in addition to major classes. Most vocational programs feature only career-specific courses and hands-on training. Vocational programs also charge more affordable tuition rates.

Many vocational school students earn a certificate or diploma in only three months. However, associate degrees generally require two years. These programs feature general education courses. Associate degree-holders often qualify for bachelor’s degree-completion programs.

Vocational Schools

  • plus-circlePrograms deliver specific, trade-focused coursework for occupations such as ultrasound tech or airplane mechanic.
  • plus-circleCosts vary, but most degrees cost $5,000 to $15,000.
  • plus-circlePrograms require as few as three months to complete.
  • plus-circleGraduates receive a certificate or an associate degree.

Four-Year College

  • plus-circleStudents earn general degrees in fields such as English or history, with concentrations.
  • plus-circleCosts vary, but annual tuition rates are often $20,000 or more.
  • plus-circlePrograms typically take four years to complete.
  • plus-circleGraduates receive a bachelor’s degree.

Before Enrolling in a Vocational School

Applicants to vocational schools complete the same steps as applicants to four-year colleges. Prospective students should consider each program’s cost, accreditation, and admission requirements.

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    Program Cost

    Although most vocational school programs feature affordable tuition rates, the cost can still be a burden. Fortunately, vocational school students may qualify for federal financial aid programs, institutional scholarships, and private grants. Like four-year colleges, vocational schools employ financial aid advisors who help learners apply for aid.
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    Reputable trade schools hold accreditation from the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC). The U.S. Department of Education charters ACCSC to evaluate trade and vocational schools. ACCSC investigates each school’s administrative practices, program requirements, and student services. Schools with online or hybrid programs also need accreditation from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.
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    Admission Requirements

    Admission requirements vary by school. But many vocational schools accept applicants without a high school or GED diploma. These learners earn high school credentials while preparing for a career. Many trade schools charge no application fee. Prospective students should meet with an admissions advisor and complete required forms, such as the FAFSA.

Best Vocational Trade Schools

#1 The Ultimate Guide to Trade and Vocational Schools

Washburn Institute of Technology

  • Location-markerTopeka, KS
  • Campus
Average Tuition
  • In-State$6,816
  • Out-of-state$6,816
  • Retention Rate64%
  • Acceptance Rate50%
  • Students Enrolled1,480
  • Institution TypePublic
  • Percent Online Enrollment2%
  • AccreditationYes
#2 The Ultimate Guide to Trade and Vocational Schools

Pamlico Community College

  • Location-markerGrantsboro, NC
  • 2 year
  • Campus + Online
Average Tuition
  • In-State$1,824
  • Out-of-state$6,432
  • Retention Rate89%
  • Acceptance Rate0%
  • Students Enrolled549
  • Institution TypePublic
  • Percent Online Enrollment47%
  • AccreditationYes
#3 The Ultimate Guide to Trade and Vocational Schools

Cox College

  • Location-markerSpringfield, MO
  • 4 year
  • Campus + Online
Average Tuition
  • In-State$10,080
  • Out-of-state$10,080
  • Retention Rate100%
  • Acceptance Rate39%
  • Students Enrolled956
  • Institution TypePrivate
  • Percent Online Enrollment100%
  • AccreditationYes
#4 The Ultimate Guide to Trade and Vocational Schools

Salina Area Technical College

  • Location-markerSalina, KS
  • 2 year
  • Campus
Average Tuition
  • In-State$6,942
  • Out-of-state$6,942
  • Retention Rate66%
  • Acceptance Rate0%
  • Students Enrolled791
  • Institution TypePublic
  • Percent Online Enrollment23%
  • AccreditationYes

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Interview with Sean Lynch, Legislative and Public Affairs Manager

Sean Lynch

Sean Lynch is the legislative and public affairs manager for the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) in Alexandria, Virginia. He shared his thoughts on CTE, trends in vocational education, and why vocational education is valuable.

Q. What is the role of ACTE, and why is it important for prospective students to know about and 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.

Q. Could you describe the current trends in vocational education?One thing that we are increasingly seeing 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 ManpowerGroup Talent Shortage Survey published in 2014, 25% of employers stated that the reason they could not fill existing job openings was a lack of applicants with necessary workplace competencies — things like teamwork, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving.

As employers realize that CTE programs can teach technical skills (which were also cited as a challenge among applicants) relevant to 21st century careers and that these employability skills are in high demand, I think we’re seeing a trend toward stronger partnerships forming across these two communities.

Q. Vocational education seems to have a reputation of being less valuable than university education. Is that necessarily the case?

I’m glad this question was 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 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 earning a two- or four-year degree, pursuing a different credential, or entering the workforce.

Q. What are the general benefits of a CTE education?

CTE provides a really unique way for students to apply their academic curriculum in the 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% 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 in that career field, and the others are still gaining technical and employability training and readying themselves for their future.

Q. 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.

Q. In light of the White House’s push for greater access to postsecondary 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 are a significant part of the economy.

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Portrait of Thomas Broderick

Thomas Broderick

Thomas Broderick is a freelance writer and the owner of Broderick Writer LLC. He creates study guides, informational websites, and blog posts for clients in the education field. Thomas is also a published author of over 20 short stories and a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

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