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Should I Go to a Technical or Trade School Instead of a College? – Pros & Cons

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Deciding where you’re going to go to school, or if you should go at all, can be overwhelming. The choice is even harder when you stop and think about the long-term implications. Should you go to a four-year university, a community collegeget a degree online, or take a year off to work and think about what you want to do?

These are all viable options. But another option that doesn’t get quite as many headlines is going to a technical college. A technical college provides many of the benefits of an advanced education but can be a quicker route to a high-paying job. It’s also a great option for reducing the cost of a college education and avoiding student loan debt.

Let’s explore the ins and outs of technical college, including what it is, how much it costs, and what you can expect to earn with your degree.

What Is a Technical College?

Technical College Definition Dictionary

Technical college  also called vocational college, trade school, career college, or VoTech — is secondary education that focuses exclusively on the job training needed for a specific career or skilled trade.

How is this different from a community college?

At a community college, you can earn a two-year degree, but you’re required to take a wide variety of general education classes, including English, math, and science. However, at a technical college, the classes you take are focused on your chosen career. Some programs of study will require some English or math, but most are highly specialized.

Technical schools train you for careers that require “middle skills,” which the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) defines as “skills that require additional training after high school but less than a bachelor’s degree.”

Breaking the Stigma of Technical Schools

In the United States, there seems to be a certain stigma surrounding technical schools and careers. Some people assume that if you don’t attend a four-year university and enter a “white-collar” career, it’s because you’re not smart enough to do so. In an interview for NPR, Felix Rauner, a professor at the University of Bremen, remarked that “society has stigmatized vocational education, so most American parents see college as the only path to status and a good career for their children.”

This stigma is unfortunate because it’s simply not true.

For example, it takes a great deal of intelligence to safely wire a house and not electrocute yourself in the process. It takes intelligence to take a good ultrasound, to coordinate patient care at a large hospital, to do legal research, or to assist surgeons during an operation. These are just some of the careers that technical college can prepare you for.

Attending a four-year college isn’t for everyone. Some people simply don’t want to spend that much time in school, while others are ready to change careers and try something new. Some people love working with their hands and would feel stifled sitting behind a desk all day.

Technical college prepares students for many careers that require a high level of intelligence and hands-on training, and many of these careers come with a high level of income. Below are some of the careers you can enter with a degree from a technical college, along with their average yearly salaries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Dental hygienist: $74,070
  • Network Systems Administrator: $81,100
  • Sonographer: $73,200
  • Construction management: $91,370
  • Line installer and repairer for power companies: $64,190
  • Police officer: $62,960
  • Registered nurse: $70,000
  • Web developer: $67,990
  • Respiratory therapist: $59,710
  • Electrician: $54,110
  • Cardiovascular technologist: $55,270
  • Commercial diver: $55,270
  • Plumber: $52,590
  • HVAC technician: $47,080
  • Surgical technologist: $46,310
  • Aircraft mechanic: $61,260

These are some of the highest-paying careers that a technical college can prepare you for; there are many different fields you can enter, including:

  • Welding: $40,240
  • Massage therapist: $39,990
  • EMT or Paramedic: $33,380
  • Paralegal: $50,410
  • Automotive technician: $39,550

As you can see, incomes run the gamut. However, once you factor in the satisfaction of doing something you truly love or are interested in, the choice becomes easy.

Benefits of Technical College

Piggy Bank College Cap Glasses

So, how can you benefit from attending a technical school? Let’s take a look.

1. It’s More Affordable

Discovery Channel personality and champion for American workers, Mike Rowe, sums up our education crisis perfectly: “We are lending money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back to train them for jobs that no longer exist. That’s nuts.” He’s right.

According to the Institute for College Access and Success, in 2015, the average university student graduated with $28,950 in student loan debt. In a 2016 report by Forbes, that number was over $37,000. Student loan debt is now the second-highest debt category for Americans, falling just below mortgage debt. And it just keeps going up; Business Insider reports that the cost for a four-year degree is 260% higher than it was in 1980. By the year 2024, Forbes reports, the average cost of college per year will be over $50,000.

Graduating from college carrying a crippling amount of debt is dispiriting and stressful, especially if you have a hard time finding a job. Student loan debt can affect your life in a wide variety of ways. It can delay your dreams of owning a home, starting a business, or starting a family or force you to move back home after college in order to save money and pay down your loan.

Attending a technical college is a smart way to avoid overwhelming student loan debt. A technical college is much less expensive than attending a four-year university; according to U.S. News and World Report, the average cost of attending technical college is $33,000 for an entire education. This is typically the cost of one year at a public four-year university. However, this number is an average, and many technical colleges around the country are even less expensive.

Want to see for yourself? Several technical colleges from around the country and their yearly in-state tuition fees are listed below, courtesy of the National Center for Education Statistics. These figures are for one year’s tuition only and do not include fees for books and supplies.

As you can see, tuition fees vary widely depending on whether or not the school is a private or public school. Location and program also affect tuition rates. However, even the most expensive technical schools still cost a fraction of what you’d pay at a four-year university.

The dramatically lower cost of technical college is starting to make an impact with high school students. According to the College Savings Foundation’s 2018 High School Student Survey, 8% of students are now considering technical college, in large part because of its affordability, and 52% said they consider attending vocational schools and apprenticeship programs in the same light as they consider a four-year college.

2. It’s a Quicker Path to Your Career

According to U.S. News and World Report, 60% of students need six years to earn their bachelor’s degree; only 19% of students can earn their degree in four years. Those extra two years can add up to over $70,000 in additional student debt and lost wages.

Dropout rates are also fairly high for four-year schools. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that only around 60% of students stay in school long enough to earn their bachelor’s degree. The other 40% drop out and are saddled with student debt but don’t have the earning potential of a higher degree to pay it off.

Compare this to a technical college. With this option, you’ll graduate with a degree in two years; some programs only require one year of study. You’ll start your career with little or no student debt, and often at a higher starting salary than those with a four-year degree.

You will also benefit because class sizes are typically much smaller than at a university. You’ll get more one-on-one time with your professors, which can lead to a deeper knowledge and skill set.

3. Higher Earning Potential

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that high school graduates with no college education earn an average of $718 per week or $2,872 per month. Those with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $1,189 per week or $4,756 per month. Full-time workers with an advanced degree earn an average of $1,451 per week or $5,804 per month.

According to research conducted by the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), 43% of young workers with licenses and certificates, such as those earned at a technical college, earn more than those with an associate degree, and 27% earn more than those with a bachelor’s degree. In addition, graduates with technical or applied science associate degrees out-earn those with a bachelor’s degree by $2,000 to $11,000.

4. Job Security

In addition to earning a great income with a degree or certificate from a technical school, you might find a job faster than you would if you graduate with a four-year degree. Most technical schools have strong job placement programs and pride themselves on maintaining close contacts with the industries in which they specialize.

You’re also likely to enter an industry where your skill set will be in high demand. According to a Forbes report, the United States is in the middle of a “skilled labor shortage.” There simply aren’t enough trained workers to meet current demand in some industries. Thankfully, technical colleges offer degrees in many of the industries that are experiencing labor shortages.

For example, the most in-demand positions for 2018, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), are:

  • Application software developer
  • Construction laborer
  • Financial advisor
  • Home health aide
  • Information security analyst
  • Medical services manager
  • Nurse practitioner
  • Personal care aide
  • Physical therapist
  • Truck driver

SHRM reports that in the health care industry, a rapid increase in demand due to aging Baby Boomers is leading to the labor shortage. The trucking industry is also experiencing a labor shortage, due mainly to an aging and retiring workforce, increased demand, and fewer graduates entering the transportation industry. As demand continues to increase, wages are likely to follow suit, leading to even higher earning potential in these industries.

Last, many of the careers technical college prepares you for are difficult, if not impossible, to outsource overseas. They require your physical presence. So, you won’t have to worry as much about the overseas migration some industries are experiencing.

Downsides of Technical College

Exhausted Student Books Laptop

There are very few downsides to attending a technical college, however. Here are some to consider:

1. A Rigorous Schedule

Typically, there are no breaks when you attend technical school. These programs are designed to get you into the workforce as quickly as possible, so there are no month-long breaks between semesters or leisurely spring breaks to let you catch your breath. These programs are rigorous and non-stop. Although you finish quickly, you have to do a lot of work to get there.

2. Potentially Less Financial Aid

Another downside is that you might receive less financial aid than a traditional college student. However, this might even out since you’ll be spending a lot less on your education. You can apply for federal aid through FAFSA.gov.

3. Less Adaptability

Attending a technical college might give you excellent job prospects when you graduate. However, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Human Resources, it might make you less adaptable, and less employable, as your industry changes over the long-term. The study found that by the time workers are in their late 40s, those who completed a general education program, such as a four-year degree, had higher employment rates than those who did not.

Final Word

While going to a four-year college or university might be a great fit for some people, it’s not for everyone. Parents, teachers, and business professionals need to do more to inform young people about all of their options for secondary education, including technical college.

In addition, young people aren’t the only ones who can benefit from technical college. If you’re ready for a career change or are interested in trying a new career after you retire, exploring technical college may be a great first step. You might find that you’re perfectly suited for a career you’ve never considered before.

Did you attend a technical school or are you thinking about it? What has your experience been like?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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