These days it’s assumed that a four-year college degree is a necessary credential for most job applications. As a matter of fact, it feels as though college is just an extension of high school—and an expensive one at that. But is college right for every student, and is a college degree really necessary for everyone? Vocational schools and community colleges offer viable alternatives and attractive career options.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe a college education should be the right of every young person in the world. I think a higher education, whether to get a job, launch a career, or just to become a better-educated and a more informed member of society, is essential. In many ways, four years away from home, making lifelong friends and experiencing the rituals of college life is a rite for passage for many young people. But the fact is that not everyone wants to attend college, not everyone is cut out for college, and not every job demands a college degree. And these days not everyone can afford a four-year college education.
Depending on what direction a student wants to go, there are plenty of career options outside of college. The difference between college and a vocational or a specialty school like a culinary institute or an art school, is that the latter are geared toward a specific career. College, on the other hand, offers a broader educational experience, which means you get the degree, but you can follow different career paths.
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DON’T TURN UP YOUR NOSE AT VO-TECH Vocational technical schools, or what we sometimes refer to as vo-techs, are often considered the post-high school choice for those who just can’t cut it in college, or for students who took their GEDs instead of graduating high school. But these schools offer a number of options for high-paying careers. At the top of the list is automotive technology, which is a fancy name for auto repair and mechanics. But don’t knock it: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average pay for a mechanic at an auto dealership in 2011 was $20.63 and hour, or $42,919 a year. That’s about the same wage a public school teacher makes in Florida. Some auto-body repairmen and specialized auto mechanics earn even more, and their supervisors earn an average of $66,090. Airplane mechanics and technicians fare even better.
But at the vo-tech, it’s not just mechanics. Students can prepare for careers in health care and become nurse’s assistants, practical nurses and emergency medical technicians (EMT), who can make between $20,000-$50,000 a year depending on overtime pay. There is also cosmetology, drafting, media design and video production, information technology and restaurant and food services training. What is good about some of these programs is that high school students can begin attending vocational technical institutes part-time, so they can join the workforce soon after graduation.
It is important to be aware that courses at a vocational technical institute or other professional schools, whether public or private, do not usually transfer as college credits. So students who later decide they want to attend college might be surprised to find that they have to begin from scratch.
COMMUNITY COLLEGE COMPROMISE The classic in-between option, of course, is community college. These state schools are accredited, so the courses taken at them can usually transfer to another college or university. Community colleges offer two-year programs where students earn an Associate of Arts, or an Associate of Science degree, depending on the academic track. Some community colleges now offer four-year programs as well.
Community colleges are less expensive than universities. For students who are not certain of what they’d like to do, community college is an inexpensive way to gain college credits while exploring future options. But with some community colleges you get what you pay; they can feel a lot like an extension of high school.
Still, community college degrees can lead to satisfying and well-paying jobs. Radiologists, for example, can make between $36,000 to more than $100,000 a year depending on area of specialty. From paralegals to accountants, community college degrees can place a graduate in the workforce in two years. Then students can work and save money before attending a university; and since the credits are usually transferable, the college degree is that much closer, and no time was wasted.
Private technical schools and academies that focus on business, legal and nursing certificates or diplomas can be problematic because many of the credits do not transfer to other universities, and the price of some of these schools can be more expensive than a state or even a private college. So make sure you research the school well. And don’t take the admissions counselor’s word for it. Check with area universities and see if they accept transfer credits from the school.