2021 Guide to Trade & Vocational Schools

Trade and vocational schools can open up a wide range of rewarding career options for individuals who are not interested in a traditional 4-year college experience. This guide can help individuals navigate this process and help them make decisions about whether or not trade of vocational school is right for them, how to pick such a school, and how to decide on career options.

Not everyone wants to attend a four-year college straight out of high school, and that's totally fine! Also, people seeking a mid-career change might not feel that academics are their strong suit and want something a little different. For these and many other scenarios, a trade school or a vocational school might be the right choice. However, trade and vocational programs might feel confusing for many people. That's where we come in! This guide will define trade and vocational schools and go over the basics of finding a program, applying to it, and paying for it. Dental hygienists, plumbers, electricians, and web developers are all highly valued by society, and we need more of them, so this guide will also cover some of the careers and trades that graduates of trade and vocational schools might pursue. If you are considering attending a trade or vocational school, then this resource is an awesome starting place for you!

What is a Trade and/or Vocational School?

When you're deciding whether a vocational education is right for you and your goals and needs, the first question you might have is what is a trade school? You might also ask: What is a vocational school and what is the difference between the two? There is a lot of vocabulary surrounding these schools and programs, and the first thing to do is to define some terms.

  • Vocational School: A vocational school is a secondary or post-secondary educational institution that is designed to give students the skills, usually in a trade, that they need to succeed in a specific job. The specificity of skills learned and the focus on training for a specific job are the primary ways that vocational schools are distinguished from four-year colleges. These programs are often considered an alternative to a typical university degree. For more information on degree alternatives, check out this guide from Study.com!

An important thing to remember when looking at vocational schools is that some are not accredited. The Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges is the governing body that accredits these institutions, and they maintain a directory that can tell you if the school you are looking at is accredited. Accredited schools mean that students are assured a quality education.

  • Trade School/Technical School: Trade/technical school is a term that is often used interchangeably with vocational school, but there is a slight difference between the two. While vocational schools can be independent of a college or university, trade schools usually refer to two-year programs within a college or university that allow students to graduate relatively quickly and move directly into the job market. Often, these programs will focus on fields like business, finance, hospitality, information technology, or engineering and construction. For more information, the Association for Career & Technical Education has lots of information to support people who are interested in attending a trade school.

Technical school has an additional specific use in the United States, wherein the US Armed Forces use the term to refer to job-specific training that their new recruits get.

  • Career and Technical Education (CTE) : While researching trade and vocational schools, you might see the initialism CTE thrown around. If you've wondered what it means, well, CTE stands for Career and Technical Education. It refers specifically to the kind of learning that occurs at trade and vocational schools. This style of learning focuses on a minimum of abstract academics and a maximum of specific, technical skills that will be directly related to the tasks that graduates will use on the job. CTE also focuses on sixteen specific career clusters to help students choose what kind of education will best suit them and their job goals. The sixteen clusters are:
  1. Health science

  2. Business

  3. Sales

  4. Finance

  5. Information technology

  6. Science, technology, engineering, and math

  7. Manufacturing

  8. Logistics

  9. Hospitality

  10. Government

  11. Law

  12. Agriculture

  13. Human services

  14. Construction

  15. Training

  16. Arts, audio/visual technology, and communications

These clusters each contain multitudes of specific jobs, and many are highly valued by society and are often well paid.

  • Other Terms: In addition to the terms we have already covered, you may hear other terms used interchangeably, such as vocational colleges, vo-tech schools, careers schools, correspondence schools, and technical colleges. These terms all basically refer to the three main terms covered above, but make sure you do specific research into programs that use alternate terms. Sometimes they are a marketing strategy, other times they may be red flags for scam programs.

Trade schools and vocational schools do not always offer the same types of degrees that can be earned at four-year traditional colleges. However, they do offer diplomas and certificates.

A diploma indicates that the holder has concluded a specific course of study and has concrete skills in a specific field (e.g. welding). A certificate indicates a little more in-depth schooling than a diploma and that the holder has completed multiple classes and training in a specific area or skill (e.g. plumber or electrician). Rarely, some programs may offer associate degrees, which take about two years to earn and cover the basic skills a student would require to succeed in a specific career. Some of these associate degree programs also require general academic education coursework, too.

Trade Schools vs Four-Year Colleges

Having clearly defined trade and vocational schools, it is important to ask what the difference is between these programs and a four-year college. The major difference is that trade schools will focus specifically on tasks that graduates will use in their day-to-day responsibilities at their jobs, whereas a four-year college degree includes more academic learning that doesn't necessarily translate one-to-one in terms of skills that are used daily in jobs. However, there are pros and cons to trade schools, and these are important to keep in mind.

Pros of a Trade School Education Cons of a Trade School Education
A shorter program! Where a bachelor's degree takes about four or more years to complete, most trade school programs take two years or less. A lack of degree respect. Some people view a certificate or diploma as less prestigious than a degree. However, this doesn't take away from the skills learned at a trade school.
Flexibility! Trade schools almost always have evening courses or part-time options so students can more easily manage life commitments and school. Fewer Support Resources. While most four-year schools have career, counseling, and writing centers, trade schools may lack these resources.
Job Demand! Medical technicians and plumbers are essential to a functional society, so there is always a demand for skilled individuals in these careers. Overall Earning Power. While skilled trades might make more money right out of the gate, a four-year degree may lead to higher salaries in the long term.

Where Are Trade and Vocational Programs Located?

CTE Programs are available nationwide, and there are even online trade schools--although these might also require some in-person hours--for those who are looking to begin their education in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic or even those who feel that an online education is a better choice for them in general. Some programs will be part of recognized universities and colleges, but others will be independent schools that are (usually) government-supported, sanctioned, and accredited. The ACCSC has a searchable directory of schools that cover the entire US, and all these programs are accredited.

When you begin your search for a trade school, it is likely there will already be one in your area. Other reliable sources to check for accredited programs in your area--or in your dream location, if you are willing to move for school or work--include the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, which is maintained by the US Department of Education and the databases maintained by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Is a Trade or Vocational School Right for You?

Now that we have covered the what and where of trade and vocational schools, it's time to ask if a trade or vocational school is right for you. While this guide can't directly answer that question for every single individual, we can explore some of the reasons that people may choose to pursue a CTE education and provide some questions to help you self-assess whether or not trade school is right for you.

There are a variety of reasons that a trade or vocational school might be a better fit for some people than a traditional four-year college. The simplest reason is that some students simply do not want or do not value an academic education. While some high school programs might highlight a traditional four-year degree program as the only option, that choice is simply not right for some students. This might be because those student's interests lie outside the traditional academic structure.

Students who value the hard skills that they are introduced to in shop class or robotics club but didn't see the point in reading Wuthering Heights may do extremely well in carpentry trade school or electrician trade school. Additionally, students who prefer doing hands-on work as opposed to writing papers and who want to jump right into a career after high school may prefer the streamlined, job-focused education that trade schools provide.

Not everyone who is a good fit for a trade or vocational education will be a student straight out of high school, however. Professionals who are mid-way through their careers may find themselves burned out or unfulfilled, wanting to make some serious changes to their professional lives. Learning new skills--and earning a certificate or diploma--that complement a current career can allow for career shifts that accommodate changing needs or desires. And because CTE Career Clusters span a majority of careers that can also include graduates of four-year college programs, adding a new hard skill can really boost an extant career's trajectory.

Conversely, if someone wanted to learn an entirely new trade and change career clusters in the middle of their working lives, trade schools are an excellent way to learn new skills relatively quickly and without the price tag associated with a four-year college degree.

Self-Assessment Questions

  • Are you a high school student who is unsure what career you want?

  • Are you a professional who is looking to change careers?

  • Are you already in a CTE Career Cluster job and want to advance your career?

  • Do you prefer learning practical skills to academic theory?

  • Do you like working with your hands?

  • Are you looking for a job that pays well, even in an entry-level position?

  • Do you feel that your skills and abilities don't fit a traditional, four-year college program?

  • Do you enjoy practical problem-solving?

  • Is your goal to make a positive impact on your community?

  • Do you need or want more training to meet your career goals?

  • Do you want to avoid the student loan debt typically associated with a four-year college program?

How Do I Choose a Trade or Vocational School?

If you answered 'yes' to a majority of the self-assessment questions in the previous section, congratulations, you have decided that you are a good fit for trade or vocational school. Now the question is how to choose a school that is right for you. There are many factors involved in choosing the right program, and this section will go through those factors broadly to help you make the best decision.

It is also important to check out organizations that can help you find programs, financial aid, and networks. The three big organizations in the US that can help you find and fund your CTE education are:

Before you start looking for specific programs and schools, it is important to have some idea of the skill set(s) you want to learn or the jobs you want to eventually apply for. This usually means narrowing down the CTE Career Cluster you might want to position yourself in. For example, if you know you enjoy aspects of beauty like hair, makeup, and nail art, then you don't need to be looking at carpentry or IT programs. Similarly, if you loved shop class in high school or are really into woodcraft on the weekends, then ignore finance or plumbing programs.

Once you have a sense of what CTE Career Cluster or job you want, then you can look at specific programs while keeping the following factors in mind.

School Facilities

It is always a good idea to keep the physical school in mind when you are choosing a program. What is the campus like? How are the classrooms, shops, labs, etc. laid out? Does the school have the newest technologies in the fields they focus on? If possible, it is always advisable to tour a school before you enroll, and if possible, sit in on a class or two. This will give you a sense of what your time during the program will be like, and it can also help you identify any red flags in the physical environment.

Rates of Admission
Rates of Completion/Graduation
Other Program Success Rates
Tuition and Fees
Licensing and Accreditation
Program Complaints

How Do I Apply for a Trade or Vocational School?

Applying to a trade or vocational school might be intimidating, but trade schools may require far less in terms of application materials than a traditional four-year college. For example, test scores like the SAT or ACT and essays are not usually required for trade or vocational school applications.

Additionally, while four-year programs often have very strict deadlines for application and limited enrollment windows, many trade schools accept applications year-round. Some high-demand programs may have limits on the number of students who can enroll, but generally, programs offer open enrollment to students who have either a high school diploma or a GED. Each program may have different application procedures, so check with your specific program for how to apply.

Occasionally, trade and vocational schools will require additional assessments. These might be skill assessments or school-specific placement tests to see where an individual candidate will best fit in a program. Some programs may require students to pass drug tests or clear a criminal background check as well.

How Much Does Trade School Cost?

Almost every student has concerns about paying for their education after high school, whether they attend a traditional four-year college or a trade or vocational school. However, the good news is that trade and vocational schools sometimes come with a lower price tag than traditional four-year colleges. The cost of individual schools and programs will vary, but in general, trade school programs cost anywhere from $5,000 to $33,000, with tons of variety in between. Four-year college programs, on the other hand, could cost approximately $27,000 for a single year.

Tuition is often the largest chunk of the cost of paying for trade school, but there are often other fees and costs associated with CTE education that are important to keep in mind. Students are often responsible for material or lab fees, purchasing uniforms, books, and there may also be fees if you drop or add classes after certain deadlines. Make sure to research these additional fees and costs as you add up the total price of vocational school.

How Do I Pay for a Trade School Education?

Even though trade school and vocational school might come with a lower overall cost than a four-year college degree, paying for trade school could still be daunting. Some schools might have in-house financial aid or scholarships, and most have tuition payment plans where students can pay tuition in installments rather than as a single lump sum.

However, students should also fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), because many will qualify for federal financial aid. Federal financial aid is good because it can consist of grants, scholarships, and loans, and students will have fixed-income rates and do not have to pay interest while they are in school. For more information about the FAFSA and Financial Aid, check out Study.com's FAFSA and Financial Aid Guide for College!

For students who do not qualify for federal financial aid, there is private financial aid as well as scholarships from industry associations. An example of a private loan would be Sallie Mae's Career Training Smart Option Student Loan, which is aimed specifically at students who are in professional training and trade certificate courses.

An example of an industry association scholarship would be the various grants and scholarships offered by the Associated General Contractors. In addition, many states offer grants and scholarships to students attending vocation and trade schools, so make sure to check your state's website for options.

Finally, many graduates of trade or vocational schools who find employment in their chosen fields may be eligible for employer tuition reimbursement programs. In these programs, an employee works for a company and the company provides reimbursement for some or all of a student's tuition. This is often the case in healthcare professions like nursing and in legal professions like paralegal work. There are also specific companies that offer employer tuition reimbursement programs, including but not limited to:

  • Boeing
  • Disney
  • Google
  • Home Depot
  • UPS
  • AT&T

Best Trade or Vocational Schools

The best trade or vocational schools offer a wide selection of courses, support systems for students while they are enrolled, placement services for students once they graduate, and flexible schedules to accommodate all types of learners. We've compiled a list of 30 schools that excel in these areas using data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) to give you a starting point for your search.

Rank School Name State Weekend/evening classes? % of students awarded financial aid Tuition & Fees (in-state)
1 Lake Area Technical Institute SD Y 94% $2,904
2 State Technical College of Missouri MO N 95% $5,258
3 Frontier Community College IL Y 96% $8,902
4 Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology PA Y 88% $8,200
5 South Georgia Technical College GA Y 96% $3,000
6 Oconee Fall Line Technical College GA Y 90% $2,400
7 Iowa Lakes Community College IA Y 88% $5,856
8 West Kentucky Community and Technical College KY Y 96% $4,176
9 Mesalands Community College NM Y 87% $1,440
10 Dakota County Technical College MN Y 77% $5,220
11 Western Technical College WI Y 81% $4,102
12 Ogeechee Technical College GA Y 91% $2,400
13 Sampson Community College NC N 100% $2,736
14 Northeast Community College NE N 90% $2,970
15 Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College WI Y 74% $4,368
16 Southwestern Community College NC N 77% $2,128
17 Georgia Northwestern Technical College GA Y 92% $2,400
18 Northeast Alabama Community College AL Y 93% $3,930
19 Southwestern Community College IA Y 93% $5,722
20 Western Dakota Technical Institute SD N 100% $3,630
21 Clovis Community College NM Y 86% $1,296
22 East Mississippi Community College MS N 92% $3,300
23 North Dakota State College of Science ND N 89% $4,528
24 Mayland Community College NC N 73% $2,432
25 Southeastern Community College NC Y 95% $2,432
26 Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas AR Y 95% $2,580
27 Anoka Technical College MN Y 75% $5,159
28 Southern Crescent Technical College GA Y 89% $2,400
29 Minnesota State Community and Technical College MN Y 87% $4,965
30 SOWELA Technical Community College LA Y 88% $3,335

What Careers Can I Aspire to with a Trade or Vocational School Education?

Graduates of trade and vocational schools are capable of performing highly skilled work that is invaluable to society functioning smoothly. In the US, skilled workers are in increasingly high demand, thanks to years of encouraging students to choose four-year degrees over trade careers. Further, many trade jobs are growing rather than shrinking. As long as we have plumbing, homes, and bodies, we will need plumbers, carpenters, electricians, nurses, phlebotomists, and other skilled tradespeople.

So far this guide has focused on the steps to getting into and affording trade school, but now we will focus on some of the careers that students can aspire to after they complete their education. The next few subsections will focus on some of the jobs that graduates can get, the average length of some programs, and the median income for some example professions.

Medical Careers

One of the largest and most diverse CTE Career Clusters is medical jobs, which can include:

  • Licensed practical nurses (LPNs)
  • Dental hygienists
  • Cardiovascular technicians
  • Diagnostic medical sonographers
  • Respiratory therapists
  • Pharmacy technicians

Beyond human medical health, veterinary techs can also get trade school degrees! While the individual certificates and diplomas contained in this CTE Career Cluster can vary widely, in general, these programs tend to be on the longer side. They can range from 1-2 years of classroom training, and some include practicum hours. For example, a diagnostic medical sonographer has to complete a year and a half of training and an additional 1,900 to 2,200 of practicum hours.

While these careers tend to require a lot of intensive training, they lead to highly in-demand careers. For example, almost 700,000 LPNs were employed in 2014, and there is an expectation that 70,000 new pharmacy technicians will be needed between 2012-2022. As per the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay for each specific job per year will be different, but to take an example, the median pay for an LPN in 2019 was $22.83 per hour or $47,480 per year.

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