A Comparison Between Vocational Schools and Four-Year Colleges

A Comparison Between Vocational School and Four-Year Colleges

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There are a variety of differences between vocational or trade programs and four-year degree programs. The biggest difference between the two is that vocational and trade programs train students exclusively in the skills needed for a specific job; there are few to no “extra” requirements. Four-year degree programs, however, often include classes in general subjects in addition to the classes required for a student’s major; this makes bachelor’s degree programs take longer to complete. Let’s compare some data on each…

Number of students enrolled:

In 2012, there were nearly 8.5 million students seeking a sub-baccalaureate credential in occupational education. In less-fancy terms: Nearly 8.5 million students were working towards a certificate, associate’s degree, or similar credential in a vocational or trade program. Alternatively, in that same year, over 13 million students were enrolled in a four-year institution. While more students were seeking bachelor’s or postgraduate degrees than vocational credentials in 2012, a new trend is emerging: College enrollment is decreasing, while vocational education is becoming increasingly popular.

Length of program:

Some certificates may be earned in as little as a few months, but typically the average time a student would spend in a vocational program or earning an associate’s degree is about two years. Contrast that with a typical bachelor’s degree program, which lasts four years (assuming you graduate on time, which many students don’t). Vocational students, then, can enter the job market as full-time employees sooner than students who first want to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Cost of attendance:

Although these numbers vary widely depending on the specific program, the average cost of an entire vocational program is around $33,000. Compare that to an average of $8,000–$27,000 per year for a four-year bachelor’s degree program, for an average total sum of $32,000–$108,000. While four-year colleges on the cheap end of that spectrum have similar costs to a vocational program, many four-year colleges (especially private, nonprofit schools) cost more than average (think: $60,000 per year). Depending on your career goals, performing a cost-benefit analysis is important.

Job prospects:

  • Demand: Workers in vocational and trade fields are in high demand, and that trend is only expected to increase as more baby boomers retire. With more students attending four-year colleges in the last several decades, fewer have pursued trades, leading to a shortage in qualified candidates. Construction workers, plumbers, and electricians are necessary for daily life, so there is a lot of job security there too. Furthermore, bachelor’s degrees are becoming so common that it’s forcing students to pursue postgraduate degrees (master’s, professional, or doctoral degrees) to set themselves apart and appeal to employers. Postgraduate degrees require at least two more years of time, plus the cost of tuition.
  • Average earnings: Those with an associate’s degree working in a vocational field can expect to earn about $38,000 annually. Comparatively, those with a bachelor’s degree can expect an average of $50,000. Although there is a measurable difference in income, keep in mind that these numbers are only averages and will vary greatly depending on many factors (location, seniority, etc.) and remember that different companies also offer different benefits (paid time off, year-end bonuses, etc.). Another factor to consider is the cost spent on training and education versus the income—yes, those with bachelor’s degrees typically make more money, but they also spent more on tuition.
  • Unemployment rates: As of 2009, 86% of people who began their studies in 2003–04 and earned an occupational credential were employed. Of those, 75% were employed in a field related to their credential. In comparison, of that same group who started in 2003–04, about 82% who earned an academic credential were employed in 2009. But of those, only 53% were employed in a field related to their degree.

What can we take from all of this? More students are still enrolling in four-year degree programs than vocational programs or trade schools, but that trend is shifting. The cost of four-year programs is so high, postgraduate degrees are often needed for employment, and skilled workers in trade fields are increasingly in demand, so students who learn a trade can enjoy a good wage with little student debt and significant job security in the future.

About Hannah Holley

Hannah earned a BS in Psychology from the College of Charleston, and an MA in applied behavior analysis from Ball State University. She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and worked as a therapist for children with special needs for more than five years, but now spends most of her time keeping up with her own toddler. In between playing cars and picking up after her tiny human tornado, she loves to try new recipes, take photographs, and re-watch episodes of "Parks and Recreation" for the 10th time. Hannah lives in Charleston, SC.

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