Can vocational schools fix our education system?

Over the last few years, experts have started to ask if college is a worthwhile investment anymore. With the high levels of student debt and the decreasing value of a Bachelor’s degree, many have begun looking at trade and vocational schools as a way out of this issue.

Some experts believe that trade and technical schools may be a solution to the income gap and student debt crisis in America, especially as the cost of college tuition continues to rise. However, other experts argue that a college degree is just as important today as ever before.

So, who are we supposed to believe? Are vocational and trade schools the answer to the income gap and American student debt crisis, or is a four-year college degree still worth the high cost?

Vocational Training Programs: An affordable alternative to high student debt?

Recent data tells us that the average trade school attendee completes his or her two-year degree or certificate program with an average debt load of around $10,000. Meanwhile, the average college graduate completes his or her four-year degree program with approximately $29,800 in student debt and a monthly loan payment of around $393.

After landing a job with thousands of dollars in student debt, the average college graduate earns a starting salary of just around $50,000. For those who are underemployed after graduating from their college degree program, however, this average salary sinks to around $36,000.

Meanwhile, a tech college graduate can expect to earn a median salary of around $35,720 per year after graduating from a two-year degree program. However, even though trade school careers have historically paid less than most positions requiring a four-year college degree, vocational programs are much more affordable and take less time to complete.

The Economic Benefits of Trade School Programs

With the rising cost of college tuition and a relatively low reward during the first few years after graduation, Americans are left to wonder: Is a college degree worth it?

Many experts believe that a vocational school training program may be a better solution for some students than a traditional college education. In fact, about 43 percent of college graduates are underemployed in their first job outside of their program. After five years, approximately two-thirds of these graduates remain underemployed. This is especially the case for students who graduate with degrees in psychology, biomedicine, education and health.

Meanwhile, those who complete occupational or trade school programs obtain the knowledge and skills they need to secure a specific job in their field immediately after graduation. Depending on the trade tech college and degree program, many students graduate from their trade program in two years or less, and only about 4 percent face unemployment. For those with some college education or an associate’s degree, the unemployment rate sits at about 3.1 percent.

What Experts Say About the Pros and Cons of Trade School

In-person or online trade schools were once seen as fallback options for those who couldn’t get into a four-year college or university. Today, however, many experts now believe that Americans don’t need a bachelor’s degree in order to be successful. In fact, attending an electrician school or another type of vocational institution can help to reduce the large income gap in the U.S.

According to CNBC, vocational school training in the manufacturing sector could help to boost the household incomes of those in households earning less than $120,000 per year. While approximately 18.3 million Americans worked in the U.S. manufacturing sector in 1977, only about 12.4 million are employed in the same industry today. As a result, millions of jobs in American manufacturing need to be filled, and many will require a trade school degree or certificate.

Moreover, labor market advisors at Emsi have also discussed America’s need for more tradespeople, especially as older workers retire. In 2012, for instance, more than half of all skilled tradespeople in the U.S. were 45 years of age or older. As these workers retire, the need for tradespeople will only increase.

According to Emsi, mechanic trade school graduates and automotive service technicians had the greatest job opportunities in 2017, with nearly 657,000 available positions. More than 27,800 positions were open to electronic home equipment installers, and approximately 16,000 positions were open to electrical and electronics installers.

Emsi also says that most skilled trade jobs requiring a certificate or technical degree pay an average of about $22.27 per hour.

The Disadvantages of Trade School Programs

While many experts agree that technical schools are worthwhile alternatives to four-year institutions, others believe that a bachelor’s degree is just as valuable today as ever before. While attending a vocational school, some experts feel that a traditional college education is necessary mainly for socioeconomic reasons—especially for those who come from modest households. Unless these students attend a four-year college, they may not be aware of the different career opportunities that could be available to them.

Moreover, other experts focus on the pay gap between trade school and four-year college graduates. According to Georgetown University, college graduates earn a lifetime average of $1 million more than those with a high school diploma. However, this study does not compare the lifetime earnings between graduates of vocational training programs and four-year colleges.

Most Americans Believe in the Power of a Four-Year Degree

While trade school programs may be a worthwhile alternative to a four-year college degree for some students, the American Public Media (APM) Research Lab recently conducted a survey that tells us this: The high cost of obtaining a four-year degree is worth it for most Americans. 

According to the study, 60 percent of 18- to- 34-year-olds believe that the cost of obtaining a college education is well worth it.

While one survey taker argued that most businesses prefer to meet with an applicant who holds a college degree — mainly because it shows that the candidate knows how to learn — many experts can agree that technical schools are just as worthwhile.

Like a four-year college degree program, vocational programs can open the door to a wide variety of career opportunities in many different growing industries.