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University Education vs. Vocational Training

If you’ve been following the Piglt blog, you’ve read about alternatives to paying for education and earning money to reduce debt.

But what about an alternative to that expensive education itself?

Ever since I first thought of going to college, I never questioned that I would go to a four-year university. Before I knew what I wanted to study or what type of career I was interested in, it was still understood that I would be getting a Bachelor’s degree (in 'something awesome'). Eight years later, I’m asking myself why I never even consider what a two-year college or vocational school had to offer.

Earning a BA has been an incredibly valuable experience for me, but I graduated with a lot more knowledge – more time taking notes and discussing, more time studying – than on-the-job skills. Available for more types of work, qualified for far fewer. And now, with the student debt ceiling rising and the current scarcity of jobs, many people are beginning to question the value of traditional university schooling compared to a technical or career education.

The path of the four-year university comes from enlightened ideals – providing students with general knowledge of culture, society, the world, sciences, and the arts – that only recently became more popular than the way most people were educated for hundreds of years: apprenticeship.

Apprenticeships, in many ways, are what a vocational education really is: a few years of direct, focused training in a specific field that gives students the necessarily experience to enter into a profession. Trade schools focus on application instead of theory and have smaller, more personal classes. They typically take 1-2 years to complete and graduates enter the work force sooner with a higher percentage of employment. The world will always need plumbers, electricians, and dental hygienists and guess what? Those jobs pay well and you need certification from a trade school to do them.

And then there’s the cost of that education, how much you’re shelling out to get a piece of paper that was supposed to get you a job when you wave it around or something. It takes a fraction of the tuition for a university to pay for a few years at a trade school. After graduation, students coming from vocational schools have better access to entry level jobs – with workers in Sweden earning an average of $50,000 a year as a starting salary. In fact, two-thirds of 15-16 year old kids in Sweden enter trade schools, contributing to the country’s low unemployment rate of 3% (compared to the USA’s 12% at the time).

While BAs earn more on average and can hold higher-level jobs, it doesn’t seem to be quite as useful as a license to weld when it comes to holding down steady work. According to a 2012 survey from USA Today, two years after graduation, 45% of all graduates were making only $15,000 a year and 53.6% of Bachelor’s degree-holders under 25 were jobless or unemployed.

Perhaps the advantage of vocational schools can be summed up simply: having a college degree in anthropology does not make you an anthropologist, but having a vocational degree in cosmetology does make you a cosmetologist.

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