The Ultimate Guide to Trade & Vocational Schools

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The Pros of a Trade-Focused School

Today's job market needs a skilled, educated workforce. More and more roles want degrees or certifications. Community colleges provide a general education. Vocational schools offer career training.

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 called vocational, trade, or technical schools. These institutions may be nonprofit or for-profit, public or private. They offer career-focused training programs that take two years or less to complete.

Technical schools teach students about the principles of their field. Vocational schools often concentrate on practical, hands-on skill-building for specific occupational fields.

Students may also access career and technical education (CTE) at the following institutions:

  • 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 instruction in a variety of subjects and interest areas. As sub-baccalaureate programs of study, CTE allows students to earn a certificate, credential, or diploma. Learners can also complete coursework to prepare for a licensing test. Some CTE programs allow students to transition into an associate or bachelor's degree. But most are terminal and do not include transferable credits.

CTE teaches students specialized skills to pursue specific careers fields. This type of education divides into 16 clusters:

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

Students should understand certain details about vocational programs and trade schools. These include salary potential and potential obstacles. See what many of today's vocational programs have in store for future students.

Vocational School vs. Four-Year College

Pros & Cons

Vocational education is gaining respect. Policymakers and educators have committed to building a qualified skilled workforce. This makes vocational education even more important. Earning an occupational degree, credential, certificate, or diploma comes with up-sides and down-sides.

Pros include:

  • Increased Market Competitiveness: Vocational education aligns with a graduate's market competitiveness. This prepares them for a specific occupation or specialized vocation.
  • Improved Career Opportunities: Associate graduates earn more money than high school graduates. They also enjoy higher employment rates.
  • Shorter Programs: Bachelor's degrees entail at least four years of full-time study. Vocational programs take only 3-24 months, depending on the subject matter and specific program.

Cons may include:

  • Stigma: Though important, vocational programs deal with a general stigma. Some view these options as lesser than four-year universities.
  • Limited Career Flexibility: Vocational programs are very career-specific. This means they can limit career flexibility. These programs do not transfer to future four-year academic degrees. Plus, they may not fulfill educational requirements for employment in advanced fields.
  • Lower Average Salaries: On average, associate degrees lead to lower wages than bachelor's degrees.

Best Vocational Trade Schools

Students seeking professional training can choose from lots of vocational and trade schools. Popular trade programs include nursing engine mechanics and culinary arts. To help choose the right school for you, review the following ranking of trade and vocational schools. We rank these schools based on several factors. These include student-to-teacher ratio, tuition rate, and financial aid availability.

Four-Year Schools

Washburn Institute of Technology View School Profile $ Topeka, KS 82%

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.

Brigham Young University-Provo View School Profile $ Provo, UT 87%

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.

Pamlico Community College View School Profile Grantsboro, NC 72%

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.

Cox College View School Profile $ Springfield, MO 100%

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.

Salina Area Technical College View School Profile Salina, KS 77%

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.

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Before Enrolling

It's important to consider the following factors before enrolling in a vocational program:

  • Success rate. Student success reflects an institution's quality. Prospective students should understand admission rate, graduation rate, and job placement. High admission rates may show that a program is not competitive. Low graduation rates may mean instruction is low quality. Low job placement may reveal that an institution does not prepare graduates for career success.
  • Program cost. For many students, price is top priority. Cost is not determined by tuition alone. Do students need to pay technology or lab fees? Do they need to buy equipment or software? What are the average book costs? Knowing the total cost of attendance can help students decide where to invest.
  • Accreditation. Accreditation is a vital factor. Accreditation shows that an institution meets high quality, success, and educational standards. Many certification and licensing agencies prefer graduates from accredited programs. The Department of Education (ED) does not accredit programs. It does maintain a list of approved accrediting bodies. Students can review the Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs for more information.
  • Admission requirements. Each program asks for different admissions materials and prerequisites. Before enrolling, students should ask about each program's admissions process. Does the program need a high school diploma or GED certificate? Do applicants need professional experience in the field? Are standardized testing scores necessary?
  • Instructor Background. Program success hinges on the quality of faculty and instructional staff. Students should review faculty members' academic backgrounds and professional experience. Do the professors have training and degrees in their field of practice? What certifications do they have? How long have they worked in that specialty?

Quick Facts

Individuals with associate degrees make median weekly earnings of $904, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those with just a high school diploma make $789 per week.

High school students who focused on CTE courses went on to earn higher median annual wages, 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.

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 (ACTE) in Alexandria, Virginia. He shared his thoughts on CTE, trends in vocational education, and why vocational education is valuable.

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% 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 reputation of being less valuable than university education. 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, a different 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% 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 six 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 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 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% of those that are going to require some college education or a two-year degree.


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