The alternative higher education: trade school 

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Graduating from high school brings about major changes, mostly concerning the future and what you will do with it. It can be a stressful and confusing time. Parents are most likely urging you to go to college. Friends want to go road tripping and break loose. If you go back to school, is college the only choice? Fear not: A four-year university is not the only choice in higher education. Enter trade schools.

Trade schools, also known as vocational schools, are post-secondary educational institutions that provide vocational education or technical skills, which are required to perform specific tasks and jobs. Essentially, a trade school offers programs that can be completed in two years or less, compared to the standard four-year college stint.

Most people know trade schools exist, but never consider them as an alternative. It's either due to not knowing enough information, or the idea of college being burned into their brains as the only option after graduating from high school. I know from my own high school experience that college was practically sold to me. Either you went to college, or you didn't stand a chance in the job market.

Trade schools are also key to filling job shortages in Michigan — and the state is dedicating resources to the issue.

"MEDC is connected to vocational schools through our desire to get more Michigan students engaged in skilled trades jobs," says Emily Guerrant, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

"We hear consistently from the private sector/businesses that there is a talent shortage. We also work closely with the team at the Michigan Department of Education/Career Technical Education (CTE) on this promotion, in the hopes of getting more kids into statewide CTE programs and eventually into skilled trades careers."

At Oakland Community College, students can choose from more than 100 degree and certification programs that range from IT education, such as CISCO internetworking and software engineering, to automobile servicing, and everything in between.

"Our certification programs vary greatly, with a great range," says Bridget Kavanaugh, OCC's marketing and communications manager.

Trade school degrees represent a value for students facing the issue of taking on debt for a higher education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, on average, a trade school degree costs $33,000, while an average four-year bachelor's degree costs $98,824 — a difference of $65,824.

The prospects for college graduates are getting better, but they're still not the greatest. According to the Economic Policy Institute, for young college graduates, the unemployment rate among young college graduates is 7.2 percent (compared with 5.5 percent in 2007), and the underemployment rate is 14.9 percent (compared with 9.6 percent in 2007).

Not everyone is ready for the work and hardship that a four-year college poses. For many students, college is the first time being away from homes, which can cause some issues. Without a plan, it is extremely easy to get off track and lose focus.

The 2011 "Pathways to Prosperity" study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education shows that just 56 percent of college students complete four-year degrees within six years. Only 29 percent of those who start two-year degrees finish them within three years. If you find yourself within that 56 percent, you are now saddled with at least some debt and no degree to show for it.

The statistics get even worse when you take into account private, four-year, for-profit schools. For-profit schools are colleges run by companies that operate under the demands of investors and stockholders; 78 percent of students at such institutions fail to get a diploma after six years, according to a 2011 report from the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Salaries for trade school graduates are decent when compared to those of a four-year degree. Technical and trade school jobs have a median annual salary of $35,720, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Granted, but this figure varies quite a bit based on the industry and experience level of the worker. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an average salary of roughly $46,900 for bachelor's degree-holders, amounting to an annual earnings difference of $11,180 between those with a two-year degree and those with a four-year degree.

If a trade school degree-holder completes school in two years, they'll have already earned two years' income before a university student even graduates.

Another advantage to trade schools is that they prepare students for jobs that are difficult to send overseas, such as carpentry or electrical work. Two-year schools also feed a growing domestic demand for precision skills. Skilled trade workers are disproportionately older in the United States, according to Forbes, and are creating job opportunities for younger workers as they retire.

Higher education is rarely a bad decision, whether you decide on a trade school or a four-year school. That being said, a four-year degree is far more expensive and time consuming than going to a trade school. If you prefer learning hands-on, working outside of the classrooms, and starting a career in as little as six months, trade school is an alternative that may suit you.

More by William Hynde

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