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Vocational School vs. University

By Kim Robson:

Many of our articles here on Green Mom focus on younger children. Today, let’s talk about kids who are reaching college age. High school guidance counselors and parents place enormous pressure on kids to aim for and apply to four-year colleges or universities. And for good reason — higher income. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, a bachelor’s degree holder earned an average of $16,900 more annually than someone with a high school diploma alone ($30,000 vs. $46,900). Over a 30-year career, that’s over $500,000 more in earnings.

But the cost of putting a child through college is staggering. In addition to tuition, there are fees for housing, food, clothing, laundry, grooming and gas. The price of textbooks is highway robbery. For a number of reasons, more people are considering trade school as an alternative to higher education.

What is a trade school? Also known as a technical or vocational school, it’s an educational institution for teaching skills related to a specific craft or line of work. These schools offer a more streamlined approach to education. The curriculum focuses on developing a particular skill set and knowledge base for a career, rather than focusing on receiving an overall general education. Trade schools typically take much less time to complete, have smaller class sizes, and the majority of training is hands-on, which is an ideal environment for many students. Vocational degrees can lead to high-paying jobs including, but not limited to, carpentry, water system operating, construction management, electrician, web development, aircraft mechanics, IT specialist, machinist, pharmacy tech, plumbing, elevator repair, nuclear/geological/petroleum/medical technician, or dental hygienist. All of these fields offer room for potential career growth and management positions.


~ High Cost

A study by the Idaho Department of Labor found that a bachelor’s degree in the United States costs $127,000 on average. Worse, nearly 70% of students take out loans to pay for their education. Of those students with loans, over 20% owe more than $50,000, and 5.6% owe more than $100,000 by graduation. Add post-graduate school or a doctorate, and graduates could be looking at a quarter million dollars in debt before starting a career. The added cost of accrued interest just increases the overall expense far more than the already steep price tag suggests.

~ Length of Time: Four+ Years vs. Two Years

A bachelor’s degree usually requires four years of study, which means the student won’t be entering the workforce until age 22. Also, a four-year university forces enrollees to take classes outside their major in order to fulfill credit requirements. For many, this seems like an unnecessary money-grab to pay for courses neither wanted nor needed.

~ Dropouts and Late Grads

Many high school grads simply aren’t prepared for the academic rigors of a university. According to the Institute of Education Statistics, 40% of students at four-year colleges drop out before completing their degree. So, not only did they incur the expense, but they didn’t even get a degree for that money. Of the 60% who do graduate, 64% take more than four years to complete their credit requirements, losing nearly $70,000 in lost wages and educational expenses per year, according to U.S. News. Most colleges don’t even require students to choose a major until the end of their sophomore year, creating undecided students who may have wasted their time and money on disciplines they end up not pursuing.

~ Poor Job Opportunities

Job prospects for new graduates often are not as bright as they may hope. Although the economy is getting stronger, a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute says that, overall, unemployment (8.5%) and underemployment (16.8%) rates for college graduates under age 25 are nearly double what they were in 2007. Sluggish labor markets and limited job opportunities mean young grads have difficulty paying off their student loans, which cannot be cleared even by bankruptcy. Graduates with college degrees may see a negative return on their sizable educational investment.


~ Starting Salaries

Again, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, technical and trade jobs have an average annual salary of $35,720, though this figure varies widely based on the particular industry and the experience level of the worker. By comparison, predicted earnings for bachelor’s degree holders is roughly $46,900, amounting to an annual difference of $11,180. And this doesn’t factor in long-term earnings growth.

On the other hand, trade school takes an average of only two years, amounting to an additional two income-earning years for trade school graduates, or $71,440. Factor in another $70,000 in costs for students who need an extra year to graduate from college, and trade school grads can be over $140,000 ahead of the game from the start, making up for over 12 years of difference in income.

~ Lower Cost

A trade school degree averages $33,000. Compared to a $127,000 bachelor’s degree, that means a savings of $94,000. If students are fully financing their education with loans at 4% interest over 10 years, that bachelor’s degree will cost $154,000, while the trade school degree will cost only $40,000. That’s a savings of $114,000 just on the degree.

Of course, many students work part-time to help pay tuition, increasing that gap even more. The average college student debt load is $29,900, or $36,327 with interest. Conversely, the average debt load for students graduating from a two-year technical school is $10,000, roughly 70% less than the four-year graduate.

~ Job Security

The domestic demand for high-precision skills is growing by leaps and bounds. Skilled trade workers represent a disproportionately older population, and vacancies will open up through attrition, creating opportunities for young workers to fill their shoes.

Final Thoughts

Trade school is a viable option that shouldn’t be overlooked when deciding on a post-high school future. If you’re a hands-on learner excited to get out of the classroom and start working as soon as possible, then trade school is a relatively inexpensive alternative education that may work for you.

Still, in lifetime earnings, a bachelor’s degree pays off – around $1.1 million for a bachelor’s degree compared to $393,000 for an associate’s or trade school degree. You also have the opportunity to continue your education and increase earning power with a master’s degree or doctorate, but the cost/benefit equation for post-grad school is another question.

Bottom line: If your child is graduating from high school soon, consider trade school as an alternative option to college. Click here for an infographic to help decide if trade school is for you or your student.

About Kim Robson

Kim Robson lives and works with her husband in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of San Diego. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and animals. She has written a blog since 2006 at kimkiminy.wordpress.com. Her interests include the environment, dark skies, astronomy and physics, geology and rock collecting, living simply and cleanly, wilderness and wildlife conservation, and eating locally.

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One comment

  1. The father of the two students I tutor tells me the family will need about $500,000 for the tuition alone for a Masters degree. That is not including board and room, car, personal expenses….. He’s talking top ivy league schools, of course. That is why it is very important that his kids qualify for scholarships.

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