Higher education issues have been one of the hot topics of the current presidential race, with candidates touching on reducing student loan debt and improving college access. However, what has rarely come up is whether or not college is even the best option for each and every student.
The general message in popular culture and political debates is that attending and graduating from a traditional four-year college is the only way to find a fruitful job after high school. However, there are a number of alternatives for students who don’t necessarily want to take out loans or the academic focus of a traditional university experience, and these alternatives can still lead to fulfilling careers. Called career technical, professional, and trade or vocational training, these programs are typically offered at high schools, two-year colleges, and through other outlets.
These programs are hands-on, and dedicated to teaching career-specific skills, and more importantly, they can be a fulfilling option for many students and lead to excellent jobs. However, forgoing college challenges the traditional notions of a “proper” higher education. In December last year, presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted that “a path to go to college is a helluva lot cheaper than putting people on a path to jail,” placing jail as the alternative to college. Host of CNN’s “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” — a show that celebrates unique jobs — Mike Rowe was critical of the tweet via Facebook. He argued that blind college-for-all attitudes can be “dangerous” and lead many students toward unnecessary greater debt. Instead, trade and alternative education may be more prudent for many students in the United States.
While many students may prefer the liberal arts focus of traditional college education, other students may benefit from understanding the advantages and opportunities of an alternative, vocational education and trade skills.
Because of the common rhetoric that college is the best — or only — option for adults, many may feel a stigma for not enrolling in a traditional degree program. But students should be aware that career technical or vocational training is far from simply “not going to college.” It is an alternative form of education with a number of advantages over traditional college.
Vocational education is not a new phenomenon. For years, students who were eager to enter the workforce have opted for this form of education in high school and trade schools. Popular vocational careers include welding, information technology, mechanics, and medical tech.
One of the biggest benefits to vocational learning is its lower cost. A report from Express Employment Professionals (EEP) compared the average annual cost of trade school education versus a traditional bachelor’s degree. Tuition and fees for the two-year vocational degree at a state school was about $6,400, while the bachelor’s degree at a public, in-state school was roughly $35,000. The report also noted that because vocational students are in the workforce two years earlier than four-year students, any debt acquired would be paid off more quickly.
Vocational education does not typically lead to bachelor’s degrees, but students do have the opportunity to earn a number of credentials, including certifications, licenses, and some academic degrees, depending upon their field. These credentials serve to prove one’s proficiency in a field, and/or to allow a student to practice his or her trade in a municipality.
Aside from being more affordable than traditional college, helping students get into the workforce more quickly, and teaching people tactical skills they wouldn’t learn on a liberal arts college campus, vocational education can also lead students to high-paying and in-demand jobs. Many careers require vocational training, EEP explained. These jobs include manufacturing engineers, administrative workers, and technology experts. In fact, some of the fastest growing jobs in the U.S. don’t require a bachelor’s degree, but do need skilled workers in that field.
Students who undertake technical or vocational education rather than earning a bachelor’s degree still have plenty of earning potential, according to EEP. The report pointed to the state of Virginia, where on average, a person who holds a two-year technical degree makes about $2,500 more than those who earned bachelor’s degrees. Earnings differ nationally and changes by age, but many vocational fields, such as welding, have generally high average and maximum salaries.
Like with a traditional college education, vocational learning has certain areas of study that carry more earning potential, particularly related to industry and geographic need.
Although many politicians are focusing education reform efforts on traditional colleges, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker recently announced new initiatives and funding for greater vocational education. The January announcement featured a planned $83.5 million investment in new grants for vocational education programs, school‐to‐career activities, and expanded STEM college‐career‐pathway programs for students as early as middle school.
The new initiative, which is to be included in the governor’s 2017 fiscal year budget recommendation to the state legislature, is designed to improve the local workforce and economy, according to a statement from the Baker administration.
“With too many good-paying jobs going unfilled, we are pleased to announce this critical investment in our career and technical schools,” said Gov. Baker in a press release. “Our proposal will make it possible for more students to explore a pathway to success through stronger partnerships with our schools and local businesses in the Commonwealth.”
As states such as Massachusetts start investing in better and more expanded vocational education programs, more students are likely to be exposed to this alternative form of education. Though it is not discussed as often as traditional colleges in the national dialogue, vocational, trade, and professional education carry a number of benefits and may be the right answer for many students.