Why college? Unless you are one of the lucky few who receive a full scholarship to college, is a college education -- and tens of thousands of dollars in debt for you or your family -- always the right path after high school?
As a former college professor, my first response is yes, of course a college education is worth the investment. More and more jobs and careers are professional, white collar jobs in which an undergraduate degree is the minimum educational requirement. Taking a broader perspective, however, provides a different answer.
Depending on your situation -- your aptitude, career interests, high-school record, and life goals -- learning a trade by attending a career or vocational school might make much more sense for you. Besides, if you later decide a college degree is appropriate, you can find many alternatives for obtaining it.
What does it mean to be working in a trade? It simply means that you have acquired a set of specific skills and knowledge related to a particular job/career field. A growing number of jobs and careers in healthcare, technology, mechanics, HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning), agriculture, animal husbandry, construction, and other trades are available to job-seekers with a certificate, vocational diploma, or associate's degree from career and vocational schools.
Even more appealing for people considering a career in skilled trades -- many of these jobs are in high demand, with expected growth to continue for some time. Furthermore, because more young people have been choosing college over trades, the shortage of skilled workers is growing.
Besides the demand for these jobs, skilled tradespeople can easily earn $40,000 or more annually.
What's the reason more high-school graduates choose college over trade school? Studies and anecdotal evidence show a combination of factors, including the perceived value and status of a college education, myths and misconceptions about the types of trades jobs, and stereotypes of trades workers.
Difference Between Vocational Schools and Four-Year Colleges
While the distinction is slowly blurring, vocational schools traditionally have aimed at providing a narrow course of study focused on providing the training and skills students require for a specific job. Four-year universities and colleges, on the other hand, have traditionally focused more on providing a broad education covering a wide range of topics, centered more on teaching theory and developing critical-thinking skills.
Getting Started on a Vocational Career and Education
There are thousands of career and vocational schools throughout the country -- as well as numerous online offerings -- but the first place to start is with researching trade careers that interest you.
Begin the process by talking to your high-school guidance and/or career counselor. Ask about books and other resources for trade career and trade schools. See if your school offers a job- shadowing program in which you can spend a day (or part of a day) with someone in a career field that matches your interests. (For more information, see our Job Shadowing Tips Checklist.)
If your high school does not have the resources or tools you seek, take the initiative and conduct your own research on trade careers. Then seek out your family, friends, and neighbors to discover the names of people within your network that are – or know of people who are – in the trades that interest you. Your final step is asking these people if you can shadow them and/or conduct an informational interview with them. In an informational interview, you can ask questions such as how the person got started in his/her career, what job opportunities are available in the field, what education/training is required to get started in the career, and the like. Learn more here in our Informational Interviewing Tutorial.
Once you have narrowed your choice of a trade career, your last step is finding an accredited career or vocational school nearby (or online) that offers the diploma, certification, or degree you need. Again, plenty of books and online resources are available that can help you in your search.
Each vocational school has its own admissions criteria, but expect to complete an application, submit your high-school transcript (or copy of your GED). You may also be required to take a placement exam and/or submit SAT or ACT test scores if you are considering a four-year program.
Before applying to a school, you should especially research the placement record of its graduates for the program you are considering. Most post-secondary schools offer some degree of career counseling; others are more pro-active, sponsoring career fairs and other opportunities in which students can connect directly with prospective employers about both apprenticeships and jobs.
Finally, while vocational schools are a much cheaper alternative than four-year colleges, you'll still have tuition, fees, and books. Many schools offer financial-aid assistance, and you should not by shy or coy in asking each school about what you can expect in terms of grants, scholarships, and loans.
Vocational School and Career Resources
Vocational Information Center -- an education directory that provides links to online resources for career exploration, technical education, workforce development, technical schools and related vocational learning resources.
Choosing a Career or Vocational School, from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
Career Colleges and Technical Schools – Choosing a School, from the U.S. Department of Education.
Choosing the Right Career Training School, from the Better Business Bureau.
For some other ideas for alternatives to college after high school, read one of my other articless, Next Step After High School? Some Alternatives to College.
Another Option After High School: Trade/Vocational Schools