Exploring Vocational Schools: Why They Are Growing in Popularity

General Education

Why Vocational Schools Are Making a Comeback

In recent years, U.S. educators and politicians have emphasized sending students to a four-year college rather than vocational school, also known as trade school or technical college. Once-common traditional shop classes in skills such as woodworking, drafting, industrial arts and printing declined sharply nationwide during the '80s. In California, a report by the state board of education in 1986 found that high schools had lost one-third of their secondary-school shop courses since 1978.

However, there have been stirrings of a reversal of the attitude toward vocational education. A 2011 report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education points out that only 56 percent of students earn a bachelor's degree within six years, and concluded that U.S. educators need to encourage high school students to follow other educational paths. President Obama has urged every American to get at least a year of higher education or postsecondary career training, so the nation's workforce can keep up with the 21st century economy. That's where vocational education comes in.

Opportunities for workers with only a high school degree or less have been shrinking, and will likely continue to do so. The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University projects that between 2008 and 2018, the U.S. economy will create some 47 million job openings, according to the Harvard report. But only a third of those jobs will require a bachelor's degree or higher; almost an equal number will require only an associate degree or post-secondary occupational certificate. These include jobs in the booming field of health care, as well as in construction, manufacturing and natural resources, where retirements are expected to create huge number of job openings.

While there has long been a snobbish attitude towards trade school graduates, 27 percent of people with post-secondary licenses or certificates - which have fewer requirements than an associate degree - earn more than the average bachelor's degree recipient.

In addition to being a quicker route to a well-paying job, technical colleges are better suited for some kinds of students than traditional four-year colleges. Vocational schools are an excellent choice for high school graduates who know which profession they want to enter and who are not necessarily interested in the more abstract knowledge and skills that can be obtained in college. Some vocational schools, such as the California Institute for Technology, have also become world-renowned universities.

Trade schools in transition for a new economy

Traditionally, the purpose of vocational education has been to train students for entry-level positions in jobs that require less than a bachelor's degree. But a 2008 report from the National Center for Educational Statistics describes vocational education as being in "transition." Trade schools now offer a broader approach to education and provide students with a variety of applicable skills, according to the report.

Current vocational education policy encourages high school graduates to continue their studies at the post-secondary level whether that be to earn a diploma, two-year or even four-year degree. The same report states that business, health, and technical fields, including computer technology, account for large numbers of vocational students' majors. Graduates can obtain positions as computer technicians, health care aides, administrative assistants, and others.

Approximately 5,700 institutions across all levels and sectors in the nation offer vocational training. They include four-year, two-year and less-than-two-year programs available through public, private not-for-profit and private for-profit institutions.


Top 5 reasons to go to vocational school

In spite of recent budget cuts, which might affect the availability of some programs, vocational schools are quickly becoming more popular across the country. Top reasons for vocational schools' growing popularity include:

  1. Training takes less time to complete than a bachelor's degree. Most post-secondary vocational degrees can be obtained in two years. That means you could be working and earning money in your field of study in as little as 24 months.
  2. Entry-level job opportunities are usually easily available upon graduation.
  3. Career advancement is within easy reach. If you have received a diploma or certificate, you can work toward an associate degree while working. Likewise, if you already have an associate degree, you can work on a bachelor's degree while building your career. Often you will be better attuned to your goals (since you are working in the profession) and you could also find work for a company that is willing to help pay for continuing education. One field where this step-by-step transition is popular is nursing.
  4. You will study subject matter that is relevant to the real world. You won't waste your time learning about subjects that can't be applied directly to your job.
  5. You'll have readily employable skills. Despite their expense, traditional liberal arts colleges generally do not focus on preparing students for specific positions. Vocational-school graduates, on the other hand, have the skills they need to enter the workforce. You will learn all aspects related to your specific job while in school: ethics, legal matters, safety, and so forth.

When choosing a vocational school, there are many things to look for: the cost of tuition, the promised job placement rate, potential earnings after the degree, and more. But beware: A March 2010 article in the New York Times indicated that some vocational schools could be overstating graduates' ability to obtain well-paying jobs.

Do your research before selecting the vocational school that meets your needs. The U.S. Department of Education provides a check-list of questions to answer before enrolling in any program. Aspects include the ability to transfer credits to another school, accreditation, financial aid, job placement assistance, and more.

Whatever path you take, remember that training options are out there and finding the right one for you is just a matter of research and a little bit of time.