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The Vocational alternative: Grads see high salaries, low debt

(Dave Wasinger/Lansing State Journal via AP)

(Dave Wasinger/Lansing State Journal via AP)

College graduates tend to be confident that college was a good decision, but student debt has made alternatives like vocational schools attractive.

For those less inclined to four years of traditional higher education, CNBC recites the benefits and costs.

A shorter program at a trade school and a cheaper cost are big benefits. Most trade programs take two years to complete, and sometimes less, depending on the specialization. The average loan to cover trade school comes is about $10,000, whereas the average college graduate borrows about $30,000.

For students who are more interested in working than spending more time in school, the lower costs and educational time make vocational schools attractive. Depending on the job, they can also see a quick return on their investment.

Diesel service technicians and mechanics, for instance, earn a median salary of about $44,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Electricians, dental hygienists, and construction managers also do well, with median salaries ranging from $51,000 annually to $75,000.

Those careers tend to be described as skilled or mid-level skilled, as it’s more than on-the-job training, but less than a four-year degree. They tend to get overlooked in headlines about economic growth and possible careers, though areas of the country face a shortage of mid-skilled workers. The National Association of Manufacturers predicts that, by 2025, America could have two million unfilled manufacturing jobs. If more students are inclined toward the trades, that problem would rapidly dissipate.

The issue with a vocational career, however, is a certain inflexibility. A four-year degree tends to be more marketable because the skills are intellectual and broad-based, whereas a trade school graduate tends to have specific skills for a certain sort of work. During a recession, if construction and manufacturing jobs disappear, it’s harder for those workers to transition into other fields.

Many of the fastest-growing occupations fall under vocational training. The potential for growth within those careers, though, tend to be more limited than careers that result from a four-year degree. On average, students with more years of schooling receive a greater long-term investment after graduation.

For states that invest in technical educational schools, they’ve seen strong results. New York City’s Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools, for instance, have better graduation rates than the average public high school, and low-income and minority students disproportionately benefit from them.

Even trade schools, however, can exaggerate their benefits. They can be riskier than a traditional college, and their high costs and low graduation rates have received scrutiny from the Obama administration.

For some students, though, a vocational career has brought success where a traditional pathway was too expensive or unattractive.

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