Getting technical: an alternative to traditional college

In 2000, I graduated from my first round of post-secondary education and landed a job. My first annual salary was about 13 times more than my entire education had cost me. It wasn't that my job paid so well, but that my education had been so inexpensive.

Now that my husband and I are parents, we have some decisions to make regarding our children's education. We, of course, want to find the best value possible…you know, an inexpensive but good education. With the average student holding over $26,000 in student loans, though, do “inexpensive” and “education” even belong in the same sentence?

I keep hearing that it's a different environment now than it was when I got my first job (and it is). But is it so different that an expensive education at a four-year institution is the only option?

Vocational/technical schools

Although I later attended traditional colleges, my first post-secondary education experience that I referenced was considered a vocational school. It was in the basement, and more than once, we came to school to find water dripping from the ceiling. The furniture was from the '70s, the technology from the '80s, and the course content was from the '90s (which was good, since it was the '90s). I think the marketing budget was less than $200. In fact, the only way I knew about it was because a friend had also attended a couple of years before I did. High school guidance counselors received packets of information, but rarely directed students to the school.

What I'm trying to say is that it wasn't flashy. People attended there because they had a goal, not because it was impressive. While there were advantages and disadvantages to this type of education, one of my favorite things was that it was so focused. Before I started the program, I knew who my prospective employers were, I knew what I could expect for my starting salary, and I knew exactly how long it would take me to complete the program and the classes I would take.

The main disadvantage (if you could call it that) was that it was not a well-rounded education. Every single thing I learned was directly related to my major. As an adjunct professor, I love education, and I have discussed and read articles on the benefits of a liberal arts education – which was not what I had received. And opinions differ. For instance, another professor dropped by my office the other day. “I can't believe the students in your program don't have to take Composition 102. How can they get an Associate's degree? Crazy!”

Just FYI, the trend of many of the vocational/technical schools and programs (including mine, which is radiologic technology) is to require degrees and move to traditional college campuses. Now, other non-major classes are included in the curriculum. This change has had financial implications as well. Since my program's move to a community college five years ago, the students' tuition has tripled. They have access to a beautiful campus and computer labs, which is amazing compared with the building I started in. While I can appreciate both institutions, I will always have fond memories of the smelly carpet and orange vinyl chairs of those two years of my education.

Even though I have experience in and see the value of different types of educational institutions, I think the certificate occupations offered by trade or vocational schools are an amazing value.

Certifiably (probably) inexpensive

If spending less than $10,000 on education sounds good to you, the first step is to find a certificate program that fits you. According to a report published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost half of certificate programs are in the health professions. But certificate programs can also be found in fields such as engineering, plumbing, computers, welders, machinists, cosmetologists, and firefighters.

Just because the education is comparatively inexpensive doesn't mean that it doesn't provide an average income. The same report lists that the median wage for radiologic technologists is $55,120. Imagine what you could do with that salary with little or no student loans.

Once you decide on a certificate that seems like a good fit, the second step is to find an appropriate school. Watch out for for-profit career institutions. In my somewhat limited experience, they are very expensive and don't often offer a quality education that goes with the high price. Of course there are exceptions, but usually you can easily find a more inexpensive option that still offers a quality education.

In addition, you can find programs by looking at the professional associations' websites or accrediting agencies. For my field, you can find all accredited programs on our accreditation agency's website. This information includes all programs' annual costs, so you can easily compare your costs of attending one program versus another. Our programs are also now required to publish job placement rates, board exam passing rates, and program completion rates. This easily allows the prospective student to evaluate our program and compare it with others.

If that information isn't readily available, ask these questions:

  • How many of your graduates find full-time jobs (and how quickly) after graduation?
  • What is the expected salary in this region?
  • What is the first-time pass rate on the board exam, if there is one?
  • What is the percentage of students who graduate?

Do your research carefully and talk to other graduates or others in the field. Your choice of occupation can greatly influence your lifetime earning potential. Selecting an inexpensive school can give you a boost.

I know that, in general, higher degrees lead to more money, but I think vocational programs like this can be great inexpensive options for college.

What about you? Do you have experience with vocational or technical education? Did you find it valuable? Any cautionary tales?

More about...Career, Education

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Elizabeth
Elizabeth
6 years ago

It’s nice to see someone discussing alternatives to the traditional college degree! Our education system is very different here in Canada where colleges typically offer shorter programs (1, 2 or 3 years) geared to a specific vocation — and they usually cost a lot less then university! Still, there’s a certain prestige about having a university degree that’s hard to combat. Co-op programs (one semester school followed by one semester paid work experience in your field) and entrepreneur programs (launch your own business while in university) are gaining in popularity here too. I think we’re seeing a trend towards getting… Read more »

M
M
6 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

Elizabeth,

I’ve taught in both Univ and college programs in Ontario and YES there is a silly notion of prestige that gets into students’ heads (keeping up with the academic Jones?). I don’t see much difference in ability from Yr 1 students in either cohort. But at a recent program meeting, my VP Admin commented that about 10% of new college students already have a Univ degree. They’re now looking for marketable job skills. Go figure.

Jon @ MoneySmartGuides
Jon @ MoneySmartGuides
6 years ago

I think tech schools need to be promoted more. All we hear about is that you need to go to college in order to succeed in life. Not everyone is college material. For those that aren’t, they are better off going to a tech school than they are going into student loan debt and end up with a degree they aren’t interested in or end up dropping out.

Plumbers, mechanics, electricians, etc. all make good money and there is always a need for them.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
6 years ago

I would like this comment if I could! Everyone has different interests and abilities. I’ve seen high school students excel at masonry, boat building, cooking, etc. who feel “stupid” because they don’t excel in so-called academic subjects. Some student don’t excel in the educational system at all, but have the makings of great entrepreneurs.

People are talented in many different ways. Educational systems don’t meet the needs of everyone.

Matt Becker
Matt Becker
6 years ago

While I think there can be valuable in a liberal arts education, I certainly hope people start taking more time to really evaluate the purpose and realistic prospects for the education they’re pursuing. I actually think it would be great if it became the norm for people to take a year or two after high school to work before starting college. I just think it’s incredibly difficult to make an informed decision on your career path before having and experience out in the real world. I think if people did that, then programs like the ones you describe here would… Read more »

Matt @ Your Living Body
Matt @ Your Living Body
6 years ago
Reply to  Matt Becker

I agree with you. There CAN be value in a degree like that but you’re spot on – people need to start thinking about their degrees. It’s astounding the number of people that graduate with liberal arts, business degrees, or art degrees.

Then they’re suprised when they have a tough time getting work. I got a nursing degree from a four year university. However, the only real way to make any money is to increase cashflow not found in a traditional job.

Heather@Burning the Books
6 years ago
Reply to  Matt Becker

However, it can be difficult to find anything other than a fairly menial, non-career path type job right out of high school, which may not help much in terms of useful experience down the line. I think we need more (ideally paid!) internships that are part of curricula, whether it be high school, college, or tech schools.

John S @ Frugal Rules
John S @ Frugal Rules
6 years ago

I would agree with Jon in that I am hoping that tech schools are promoted more. Not everyone is meant to go to college and there are some skills you can make decent money with. The thing is though we’re not promoting it or making it available in many secondary schools. My youngest brother just landed a job as a tech ed teacher and there are very few of them around.

Abby
Abby
6 years ago

My husband completed a culinary program at a local technical school a few years ago. Because of financial aid available to students in technical programs in our state (which few people are aware of), he paid almost nothing for his degree. The school he attended has state-of-the art facilities and the program is accredited. Two friends received the same exact degree from a well-known culinary school (with a lot of commercials on tv). They ended up paying about $40,000 for their degrees (Associates Degrees!). Most of my husband’s instructors were even former instructors from the well-known school, who had left… Read more »

Jon
Jon
6 years ago

I could not agree more. After spending one too many agonizing days at college (and dreading every morning), I picked up a job in between semesters at a local .cabinet shop. What an eye opener! You mean I don’t need a college degree to make good money? You mean I get to create actual THINGS that I can take pride in and clients can appreciate for years to come? I can enjoy what I do? Needless to say, I dropped college like a bad habit and I have been gainfully employed the past 15 years (self-employed for the last four… Read more »

Emma | iHELP students loans
Emma | iHELP students loans
6 years ago

“People attended there because they had a goal, not because it was impressive. ” This is a key sentence here – and I love this approach of going after a goal, whatever school helps you achieve it, rather than looking for a “flashy” campus.

Big-D
Big-D
6 years ago

While at the end of the day, I liked your article, I wanted to point out one thing. A former college professor told me that: A trade school degree means you can be taught a skill, A Bachelor’s degree means you can be taught to learn, A Master’s degree means you can research, and a Doctorate degree means you can create new ideas from others work. Each one has their own place in the modern work world. If a job requires you to use a specific skill set, or if one requires you to experience with a larger background of… Read more »

Dennis J. Frailey
Dennis J. Frailey
6 years ago
Reply to  Big-D

I have a PhD and have both taught (part time) at the college level for 40+ years and worked full time in industry. Here’s my slant on this issue. That professor’s view of the differences between different levels of education is commonly heard in the academic community, and I once used to voice the same sort of opinion, but having now spent a 40+ year career in both industry and academia, I think it’s not an entirely accurate reflection of reality. For example, a PhD helps you demonstrate that you can be creative, but lack of a PhD doesn’t necessarily… Read more »

Lisa Aberle
Lisa Aberle
6 years ago

Your comment was better than my article. Thanks for sharing!

Heather
Heather
6 years ago

“I have a saying: it takes a really bad school to ruin a good student.” — I love this comment, because it’s so true!! I chose to go to a state university to get my engineering degree, not because it was top in the nation, but because I could get my education there for free. My sophomore year, I applied for and received a scholarship from a major semiconductor corporation that paid my tuition, guaranteed me a summer internship, and when I graduated pretty much guaranteed me a job. The other recipients of the scholarship were from such big name… Read more »

Kate
Kate
6 years ago

I have a B.A. which is not applicable to what I do for work. I make $12 an hour, no benefits and have little job satisfaction. I work with much younger people who are either contemplating college or other paths such as military. I often tell them to look into technical schools or alternatives to university. My husband works in the marine industry as an engineer on supply vessels and his salary is approaching six figures and his company offers wonderful benefits. He has an associate’s degree which is completely unrelated to his job. He does have to periodically take… Read more »

Tony
Tony
6 years ago

I want to caution people that seek out alternative schools as opposed to traditional universities. Most trade schools are pretty good, but you’ll always want to check the school’s accreditation. Unaccredited schools can end up costing a graduate money in the long run when employers won’t recognize their degrees. I work with people that won’t hire from some schools because of accreditation.

Dennis J. Frailey
Dennis J. Frailey
6 years ago
Reply to  Tony

On Accreditation: also make sure that the accreditation is done by a reputable organization. Some sleazy trade schools invent their own accreditation agencies just so they can claim to be accredited. For example, a program in engineering technology should be accredited by ABET, the same organization that accredits traditional college programs in engineering.

Also: there is program accreditation (sometimes called specialized accreditation), which focuses on the specific degree, and then there is regional accreditation, which focuses on the school overall. You want both, if available.

Giddings Plaza FI
Giddings Plaza FI
6 years ago

What a smart decision you made! I had the benefit of a 4-year college, and also grad school. But in retrospect I’ve often thought a better way to go would have been to learn a profession (for me, likely software developer) on the job, and become “well rounded” on my free time. I just don’t know that 4-year colleges make sense for most people.

GlorifiedPlumber
GlorifiedPlumber
6 years ago

I can share my father’s experience with technical school as both a success story and a cautionary tale. My father returned to technical school at age 50. He had no college degree and worked as a unionized operator at a local plant. While working swingshift at his normal job he was able to get his 2 year technical degree in instrumentation design (difficult, but he did it). He graduated first in his class and was well respected as the older/wiser/experienced voice in the room full of 18 year olds. Upon graduation he retired from his current job (early retirement, again,… Read more »

Ross Sales
Ross Sales
6 years ago

Great article! And if readers are interested in an online education, Ranku is a great company that will help you research online degree options:

http://www.goranku.com/

The company was profiled on CNBC and is funded by Mark Cuban:

http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000197393

Bethany V.
Bethany V.
6 years ago

I think another underused resource is career & technical education on a high school level. I spent several years working with a educational non-profit (SkillsUSA Council, for those of you in the field) that focussed on working with career & technical students. Our goal was to get these kids ready to hit the workforce at 18 or 19 years old, rather than the usual 22-26. The goal of the educational non-profit was to make them good employees, teaching them about hardwork, ethics, leadership and service, things which are rarely covered in the average liberal arts education today. Yes, many of… Read more »

Carla
Carla
6 years ago

I went vocational out of high school in 1996. At age 17 (age of HS graduation), I had NO clue what I wanted to do with my life so going to a university made no since for me. I also knew I couldn’t sit around and do nothing so decided to prepare myself for work outside of working in bad chain restaurants. Two years later I was receiving job offers right and left and I’ve worked for several major companies in Silicon Valley and the SF Financial District without a university degree. Though it wasn’t generations ago, it was a… Read more »

GSand
GSand
6 years ago

I agree so strongly with this article’s premise. The thought process in most high schools and homes seems to be that if you are academically capable, you should go to university…. trades are for those without the academic skills to get higher level degrees. In fact, many of the skills that might make someone good at grade 12 calculus or English or chemistry would also be useful outside of an academic setting. And if your interests point you more towards a more practical, technical discipline, then why shouldn’t you pursue that? Avoid the mountain of debt that comes with most… Read more »

J70
J70
6 years ago

I’d also add that there are a few careers out there where a degree seems like a requirement, but isn’t always one. I’m a web developer and I know that if I had spent the time I spent in school independently developing web projects, I would be as successful as I am now our more successful.

dimitris daridekas
dimitris daridekas
6 years ago

i think that trainning since childhood is the most important factor.

Dennis J. Frailey
Dennis J. Frailey
6 years ago

I agree with that education and training should start in childhood. In the US today, children spend too little time actually learning and too much time in other activities that may make them “happy” but that detract from their development. This is also true in many other countries that are relatively well off. We forget that hard work made us what we are, and try to make it too easy for our children. The result is that they don’t develop up to their capabilities. Of course, in many poorer countries children don’t even have the opportunity for a good education,… Read more »

Rail
Rail
6 years ago

When I was attending H.S.(Class of 88), high schools were shouting from the mountains that all students needed to go to collage and become computer programmers (I guess we were all going to program each others computers or some such thing). Now 25 years later we have a shortage of tradesmen in this country and a person who has a skill or trade always has something to fall back on for some kind of employment. I knew I wasn’t the kind of man that was cut out for a university and am glad that I went to a Community College… Read more »

Dennis J. Frailey
Dennis J. Frailey
6 years ago
Reply to  Rail

Why is a college degree considered important? Think about this. Suppose you had a heart attack and they told you you needed open heart surgery immediately. There were only two doctors available who claimed they could do it. One had a medical degree from a reputable medical college and was board certified in cardiology. The other claimed to know as much and be as good, even better, but had no medical degree or certification, just several positive comments on his web site from satisfied patients. Which would you choose? Most people would choose the first because, although they don’t guarantee… Read more »

Rail
Rail
6 years ago

I’ll still take a Lincoln or Truman with no college degree over a Bush or Obama with one. Et Tu? “Sarcasim is only one of my many skills.” Of course its handy dandy for a M.D. to go to medical school. I’m not saying lets have a Cultural Revolution and put all our academics in camps. I’m saying lets have a truthful discussion on hiring someone for a position on the merit of the degree alone. No skills or experience brought to the table, maybe not even much sense; but a sheepskin in hand wins the day? Talk to people… Read more »

RiverTam
RiverTam
5 years ago

What options are there for someone like myself who lacks the intelligence for either traditional college or trade school? I would like to move up in the world but I know my low intelligence stands in the way of obtaining the required education.

Dennis Frailey
Dennis Frailey
5 years ago
Reply to  RiverTam

What to do if you lack the intelligence for school? There’s a phrase that has stood the test of time as advice for those seeking to make their way in life: “find a need and fill it.” Another way of saying this is: “solve somebody else’s problem.” People will pay you to solve their problems. Whether it be the mother who needs a babysitter or the apartment dweller who needs a dog walker or the business traveler who needs a pet sitter or the invalid who needs someone to care for them or to mow their lawn, there are always… Read more »

Dennis Frailey
Dennis Frailey
5 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Frailey

Another thought regarding services needed by retirees. A number of companies are springing up these days who will take care of everything required to help someone move out of their house and into a senior living or assisted living situation. They help you decide what to take with you, pack, move, unpack, paint the new place if needed, help arrange your furniture in the new place, hang pictures, and even arrange to sell the things you can’t take with you as well as helping sell your old house. Senior living facilities often have brochures advertising such companies. You could try… Read more »

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