For Ty’Relle Stephens, making a beeline from high school to a bachelor’s program didn’t feel like the right choice, even though many people encouraged him to go straight to college.
“I didn’t think that I was ready for college at 18,” Stephens says.
Though he did eventually plan to pursue a bachelor’s degree, Stephens wanted to get work experience and gain clarity about his life goals first, and he also hoped to bolster his abilities in areas like project management and public speaking. So he pursued a business operations certificate through Year Up, a tuition-free job training program with multiple campuses across the U.S.
High school seniors who want to enter the workforce as soon as possible after they graduate often choose to obtain career and technical certifications or earn occupational licenses in skilled trades like cosmetology, massage therapy or plumbing.
Completing a postsecondary vocational program doesn’t prevent someone from eventually obtaining a bachelor’s. Stephens — who recently became the youngest-ever elected school board member in Providence, Rhode Island — says his completion of the Year Up program prepared him to pursue a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership. He plans to get his bachelor’s at College Unbound, a nonprofit undergraduate institution that specializes in educating nontraditional students.
According to Rachel Unruh, chief of external affairs for the National Skills Coalition, a nonprofit organization that focuses on workforce training, there’s a prevalent misconception that the only way for a person to make a decent living is by getting a bachelor’s degree. “It’s sort of cut people off from considering, ‘What kinds of jobs are out there that I could really be happy in that fit my interests and that don’t require a four-year degree?'” she says.
Individuals with an associate degree, some college education or a high school diploma sometimes earn salaries above the norm for bachelor’s degree recipients. This is most common within technical occupations, such as computer and mathematical fields, according to a 2021 research report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in the District of Columbia.
What Is a Trade School?
Though one colloquial term for a career-oriented learning institution is “trade school,” umbrella terms like “career and technical college” and “vocational school” are more commonly used these days, in part to connote rigor.
“There have been significant advances in quality and rigor in career and technical education programs over time as needed by the labor market,” says Alisha Hyslop, senior director of public policy at the Association for Career and Technical Education, or ACTE.
Career and technical colleges specialize in providing practical guidance on how to perform the day-to-day duties of a certain field, such as automotive mechanics.
“We are very career-focused. We are very hands-on,” says Rose VanAlstine, director of campus administration at the Fort Worth, Texas, campus of Remington College, a nonprofit academic institution that offers a variety of vocational programs, including one on heating, ventilation and air conditioning. “Usually our programs are a lot shorter than a traditional community college or a four-year college, so the student is able to get the skills and the training that they need and get into the workforce rather quickly so they can support themselves and their family.”
Vocational certification or licensure programs are often provided by community colleges, and some are sponsored by for-profit companies or private nonprofit organizations. Many of these programs are open to anyone who wishes to attend. This is different from four-year bachelor’s programs, which often turn away applicants.
Vocational credentials are typically less costly than a bachelor’s. However, vocational classes are often demanding and require precision, Unruh says.
“The idea that it’s sort of the second chance path or it’s what you do if you can’t do college — I think that is really starting to shift,” Unruh says, noting that the student loan debt crisis has made many people dubious about the market value of certain four-year undergrad programs.
Well-Paying Jobs That Don’t Require a Bachelor’s
People who have in-demand training within growing industries can sometimes earn more than $60,000 in positions that don’t require a bachelor’s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Here are a few examples of those roles, plus the median yearly U.S. compensation for those occupations as of May 2020:
— Air traffic controller: $130,420
— Aerospace technologist or technician: $68,570
— Court reporter or simultaneous captioner: $61,660
— Electronics installer and repairer: $62,020
— Fire inspector: $62,120
— Nuclear technician: $84,190
— Occupational therapy assistant: $60,950
— Theatrical and performance makeup artist: $106,920
How to Choose a Vocational Program
Potential vocational students should investigate student completion rates and job attainment statistics at the programs they are evaluating and whether they have appropriate accreditation, Hyslop says.
“Make sure you’re not going to go through this program and then not be eligible to earn the credential that you need to work,” she says.
Also, check on whether a vocational school’s curriculum has been updated recently, whether employers sometimes serve as guest speakers and whether students have project-based learning opportunities, Hyslop says.
More from U.S. News