The Vocational School Option

Attending a four-year liberal arts college has become a common option for high school graduates. A liberal arts college education gives students the opportunity to major in a specific subject while studying a broad range of topics.

A liberal arts education isn't typically associated with a specific career path. Instead graduates have greater flexibility to explore their interests in the job market. College graduates who majored in English, for instance, could teach the subject, or use the skills acquired to work in publishing, government, marketing, business, research or entertainment. Like other liberal arts degrees, English is well-suited to careers that do not require a particular major, but rather a diverse set of skills and achievements.

However, there are other options available to students who have specific career goals and aren't interested in a four-year college for personal or financial reasons. One option is vocational school, also known as career college, technical school or trade school.

Vocational courses provide students with opportunities to acquire formal practical preparation for semi-skilled, skilled, technical or professional careers in fields like fashion design, electronics, cooking or automotive technology. Most technical and vocational courses are offered by community colleges, though certain states have their own technology institutes with accreditation equivalent to that of other state universities.

"There are many positive reasons for attending a vocational school," says Cheryl Beese, dean of academics at Rockford Business College in Illinois. "A student is more likely to receive a personalized education, meaning that the student is viewed more as an individual rather than an enrollment identification number. The student will learn technical skills geared towards a career field, and all classes in their program of study relate to their chosen field."

There are a number of inquiries that you should make before choosing a vocational school. A government publication entitled Career Colleges and Technical Schools: Questions to Ask Before Enrolling, suggests students ask the following questions:

  • What kind of career and technical training do you want?
  • Which schools offer the training or program you need?
  • What preparation do you need for a particular job?
  • Will employers accept the training as preparation for employment?
  • Is the school you are considering accredited and licensed?
  • What are the requirements for admission?
  • Will your coursework transfer to another school?
  • Is crime at the school a problem?
  • Should you visit the school?
  • How much will you pay for the program or training?
  • Is financial assistance or student aid available?
  • Will you have to sign an enrollment contract?
  • What is the school's refund policy?
  • Will your program be delivered by distance education?
  • Does the school offer job placement assistance?
  • How can you avoid diploma mills and unaccredited colleges?
  • Have students filed complaints against the school?

Finding the school that matches your goals and interests is probably the easiest part of your search. Career exploration websites and software can help match occupations to programs, and programs to schools. If a vocational school exists in your area, you can phone or visit the school to get basic information, and perhaps schedule an appointment with an admissions officer to discuss what the school has to offer.

There are several specific factors to consider when making your final school selection, before signing up or handing over any money. It's important to gather this information carefully. According to an article from the Federal Trade Commission entitled Facts for Consumers: Choosing a Career or Vocational School, here are some of the steps students should take:

  • "Compare programs. Study the information from various schools to learn what is required to graduate. Ask what you'll get when you graduate -- a certificate in your chosen field or eligibility for a clinical or other externship. Are licensing credits you earn at the school transferable? If you decide to pursue additional training and education, find out whether two- or four-year colleges accept credits from any vocational or correspondence school you're considering. If reputable schools and colleges say they don't, it may be a sign that the vocational school is not well regarded.
  • "Investigate training alternatives, like community colleges. The tuition may be less than at private schools. Also, some businesses offer education programs through apprenticeships or on-the-job training."

Other important factors to consider include the instructors' qualifications, whether the school assists graduates in finding employment, and the percentage of graduates who find employment in their chosen fields of study.

David Walker, dean of the Raleigh-Durham North Carolina Campus of DeVry University, says, "The biggest advantage we have is the experience of our instructors who are working in the fields in which they teach. Accounting instructors are accountants working in their field, and computer systems instructors are really working in their field. Nationwide, 92 percent of our graduates are placed in their field of study."

Many vocational/career colleges are highly regarded in the educational community. These include DeVry University, the University of Phoenix, Kaplan College and ITT Technical Institute. Schools like these are on a comparable footing with other state schools when it comes to accreditation.

Accreditation means that a school has been officially accepted in meeting the criteria set forth by an accrediting agency or association recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. If a school is not accredited, any degree or certificate issued by that school may not be considered acceptable proof of legitimate academic accomplishment.

Be aware that there are some vocational/career colleges that are regarded as diploma and certificate mills. Such schools are not accredited, and offer diplomas in exchange for money, but without providing adequate training. If the coursework is delivered online, the instructors may lack qualifications to teach the course. In some cases, an actual school does not even exist.

Do the necessary research to verify the credentials of your school before signing any contracts or paperwork. Check with the U.S. Department of Education to see if your chosen school meets their educational standards and is accredited by a sanctioned agency. If you secured a personal loan to pay for courses at a diploma mill, you will still be required to pay the lending institution, even if your diploma turns out to be worthless.

How will you finance your career education at an accredited school? Financial considerations include not only tuition, but also the cost of books, lab fees, living costs and other miscellaneous expenses.

Some vocational schools provide financial assistance. Some offer scholarships and grants to offset costs. Find out if the school offers payment plans or loans. You will want to carefully read any documentation regarding repayment and consequences of defaulting on loans or payment plans. You should find out whether your chosen school meets the requirements that allow you to apply for U.S. Department of Education student aid programs, which may include grants and low-interest loans.

A vocational/career-focused education can be a positive and profitable experience that is well worth the time and effort it takes. Besides gaining task-specific skills, students experience teamwork and gain exposure to a variety of cultures. Dawnna Williams, personnel officer at the public library in Rockford, Ill. and graduate of DeVry University, says, "The online environment was especially beneficial, since it brought students together from all over the world. Group projects were required in many of my classes, so my classmates and I were challenged with working together in a virtual setting."

If occupations like automotive technician, paralegal, hair stylist, truck driver, welder, medical assistant, electronics technician or licensed practical nurse interest you, consider exploring the vocational school option. It may be a good fit for you and your career goals.