Average cost of a Bachelor’s Degree: $36,436/year

Average cost of a trade school education: $12,000 – $20,000 (total)[1]

Average cost of other people’s (invited or not) opinions regarding your future…

Average cost of lost opportunity – and passion…

The cost of limited opinions and lost opportunities are not as easily quantifiable as the dollars and cents of post-secondary education, but they are no less important to consider when exploring career pathways. What do you want? What drives you? What sparks your imagination and gets your gears grinding? And – let’s face it – what’ll put money in the bank and facilitate the life you want to lead?

As you work through your decision (or help your child work through theirs), the very best tool is information and being aware of all of the options in front of you.

Vocational Training Needed to Go

Vocational training, as some of us dinosaurs knew it, started disappearing from schools in the 1970s… And good riddance. We said what we said.

From its inception, trade education was designed for the “have nots.” High school was for middle class students who would go on to college. At the turn of the 20th century, the sudden influx of students from lower income brackets, whose parents were immigrants or factory workers, stymied school systems. Thus… vocational education. They’d track these kids right into the “dirty jobs” where they belonged.[2]

Voc students were, and knew they were, marginalized and considered second-class students.  It’s past time for an update. Aside: Fortunately, a new iteration is taking place as we speak. Forward-thinking institutions and innovative partnerships (such as that of Hub & Spoke, local employers, the Maker Playground, and the City of Fishers) provide the trade-based education that propels industry forward – and helps fuel career aspirations for all.

College… Or Else

As often happens, however, the pendulum swung wildly, and vertiginously, in the other direction as shop class began its death throes. “College for All” was the new mantra in the spirit of equality and equity. And, really, that did just as big a disservice. Forcing anyone into a mold, even if the mold is supposed to be “better,” is a fundamentally flawed endeavor. Because college is not for all. College is not the best option for everyone. College is not the only path to success, happiness, creativity, and fulfillment. We’re betting your guidance counselor didn’t tell you or your child that.

We know, we know. College grads earn an average of $30,000 more than those with a high school diploma[3] (the data is conspicuously lacking when it comes to trade school counterparts though). And yes, research does indicate that those who take the college route (and finish) are more likely to own a home and access high quality benefits, while being less likely to live in poverty, require public assistance, and experience unemployment.

We are all about information and empowering people to make a solid choice that works for them. With this in mind, know that college graduates shoulder an average of $31,172 in debt – that four year degree will take 10-30 years to pay off.[4]  College students and grads also pay the “opportunity cost.” This is the income they lose out on by taking four years out of the workforce. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, this amounts to $120,000.

Someone who opts for trade school may pay, at the higher end, about $20,000 for a program that lasts from a few months to two years (not taking financial aid, tuition reimbursement from employers, and paid apprenticeships into account). They enter the workforce faster, meaning they face a much less steep “opportunity cost” – in fact, it comes to tens of thousands of dollars in opportunity gained right off the bat.

The College ROI?

Carrying some debt and missing out on some time in the workforce may well be an investment worth making but for many the math does not work out:

  • Fewer than 66% of those who start college end up with a degree
  • 30% drop out in their first year
  • More than half (53%) of graduates are unemployed or underemployed
  • More than one-third end up with jobs they could have secured without a degree (and without all that debt)
  • 44% of college grads regret their choice of major[5]

As a recent study, reported in Forbes, found, “They may be the most educated generation in history, but if there’s one thing millennials regret, it’s going to college.” More than a third of those aged 18 – 35 say they lament their decision, while about half said they’d be just where they are now (sans $30k+ in debt) without a degree.[6]

Getting Lost on Career Pathways?

It’d be hard not to get stuck in the weeds when it comes to planning for a meaningful career! It only gets easier and more clear when we give trade education the same airtime, the same weight, and the same value as we give four-year colleges and universities.

Make no mistake, folks, we’re not talking about your grandpa’s voc class that may have prepared him for a job but didn’t empower him for more. We’re talking about dynamic, multifaceted learning that focuses on hands-on experimentation, skill building, creative and critical thinking, intra- and interpersonal growth, and leadership development. We’re talking about giving trade education a seat at the table when it comes to career exploration. Then we can have a conversation.

College is a viable pathway for many. The trades must also be regarded as an equally viable – and equally valuable – route. When it is pushed to the margins, it costs not only individuals who could excel in these areas, but companies and the economy as a whole. Let’s face it: skilled trades are not the jobs that are going to be obsolete thanks to AI and other technologies. We will always need welders, carpenters, plumbers, designers, makers, and doers.

What Do You Want?

A fulfilling career? Opportunities for growth and advancement? The ability to lead? And, of course, money in the bank! Now it’s up to you to explore the pathways – yes, there is more than one – that can take you there. Is a trade education the best route? College? A hybrid? (Some people tend to forget that a degree and vocational training can go hand-in-hand.)