Vocational Schools vs. Traditional Colleges: Choosing What's Right for You

General Education

College vs. Vocational School: 5 Tips on How to Choose

According to a 2009 report by the National Governors Association, by 2014 nearly 75 percent of future jobs are expected to require a post-secondary degree or certificate. Higher education can help you compete successfully in tomorrow's job market, but choosing the school or degree program that meets your needs can be challenging. From short-term certificate and diploma programs that can be completed in a few months to four-year bachelor's or post-graduate degrees, there are a wide range of options. While a bachelor's degree may be the golden ticket to career advancement, a range of growing careers require only an associate degree or certificate. Read on to learn more about how to choose between vocational schools and traditional colleges.

Vocational schools: What are they?

As the name implies, vocational schools teach you a vocation. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) now refers to vocational education as "career and technical education," or CTE. This kind of education can take place at both the secondary and post-secondary level, but growing fields such as health care and technology often require post-secondary education.

According to the NCES, the number of students pursuing vocational education increased by about half a million between 1990 and 2005, mainly in the areas of health care and computer science. At the post-secondary level, CTE is linked to preparation for employment in specific occupations and provides relevant skills and knowledge in a focused area of study. Typically, career education instruction focuses more on application than on theory, preparing graduates to jump right into a profession, usually in entry-level positions.

The NCES reports that career programs were offered at roughly 5,700 institutions across all levels and sectors in 2005, including four-year, two-year and shorter programs at public, private not-for-profit and private for-profit institutions. These programs can result in certificates, diplomas, associate degrees and even bachelor's degrees. Areas of study include business, computer education, health, science, social sciences, transportation, materials construction, vocational trades and many others.

Traditional colleges: Are they for you?

Colleges or universities, offering either two-year or four-year programs, focus on teaching students critical thinking skills rather than teaching them a vocation. The main goal of traditional universities is to teach students how to analyze, solve problems and to do research. Upon graduation, students may not have a clearly defined career path, but they should be prepared to enter the professional workforce in their field or a related field. According to the NCES, academic instruction is typically designed to be theoretical and independent of specific labor market requirements.

Many professional positions require a college degree rather than a vocational degree, and college graduation has been the traditional entry ticket into the professional workforce. As a college student, you will be in good company: the NCES reports that as of fall 2007, 18.2 million students were pursuing college degrees.

5 differences between vocational schools and traditional colleges

Here's a short list of the main differences between vocational schools and traditional colleges and universities.

  1. In general, vocational schools teach you skills that you can apply to a specific vocation. Universities teach you theory, critical thinking and analysis in addition to some hands-on information.
  2. Vocational programs are shorter--usually one to two years--than programs at colleges and universities, which are a minimum of two to four years.
  3. On average, earnings are higher for those who hold at least a bachelor's degree as opposed to those with degrees or certificates from vocational schools. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2009 individuals with a bachelor's degree had a median weekly income of $1,025, while those with an associate degree earned $761.
  4. College tends to be more expensive than vocational schools. The NCES reports that four-year institutions had an average annual cost, including tuition and room and board, of $20,154 in 2008-2009 while two-year institutions cost $8,116.
  5. Graduates of vocational schools usually are in an excellent position to land an entry-level position, while college graduates may have better access to higher-level jobs.

How to decide between college and vocational school: 5 questions to ask yourself

Vocational schools are highly valuable, especially for those students who know exactly what profession they want to work in and don't have the desire, drive or time for theoretical academic work. Vocational programs are relatively short--usually one to two years--and offer employment opportunities in practical fields such as health care or technology.

College is ideal for those students who want to immerse themselves in the academic life and whose goal is to enter the professional working life upon graduation. The main issue to remember is that vocational schools teach students a particular vocation or profession, while universities and colleges usually don't. For instance, having a college degree in business doesn't make you a businessperson, while having a vocational degree as a dental hygienist makes you a dental hygienist.

Ask yourself:

  1. Do you have a specific profession in mind?
  2. If yes, does this profession require a college degree or is a vocational degree enough?
  3. Are you interested in independent academic research, critical thinking and learning for its own sake?
  4. Do you have what it takes in terms of drive and perseverance to complete a college degree?
  5. What is your financial situation? Can you get financial aid for a college degree?

Both colleges and vocational schools offer solid educational opportunities and credentials that can prepare you for the job market. The right choice depends on you and your career goals.