Trade school, community college, 4-year university… which route is for me?

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For many years, the desired career sequence involved a high school diploma, a four-year college degree, and a steady, well-paid job with room for advancement. That track may be going the way of that almost mythical pension as college costs soar.

That’s not to say a college degree isn’t worth the time, expense and effort. But, it’s not the only way to get ahead. Community colleges and trade or vocational schools can instill important skills and get you into the workforce faster than a college degree and at a lower cost.

Pick up a trade

Trade or vocational schools offer instruction in a specific skill for a specific job. Such positions can be found in a range of industries: healthcare, information technology, automotive, mechanical and construction, among others. They tend to be hands-on jobs—like a medical assistant, welder or electrician—that aren’t likely to be outsourced overseas.

If you have a certain career in mind that requires a particular skillset, then a trade program could be the answer. You’ll be able to focus solely on your chosen path, which means not spending extra time or money on credits intended to provide a rounded education. And, class sizes are often smaller, which can mean more individual attention and hands-on learning.

Programs are usually completed in two years or even less, depending on the level of complexity involved and the requirements for certification. Career School Now reports this education will set you back about $33,000 on average, and student debt typically accumulated to help pay is about $10,000.

A trade program offers some clear financial benefits compared to a four-year institution. It costs a fraction of the amount, and you are out of school two years earlier than your university counterparts. That’s a two-year head start in earning an income and repaying any loans.

Get acclimated with community college

Through community college, you can earn an associate’s degree in two years. As with a trade, you may be able to focus on a particular area of career interest. For the 2018-19 academic year, the average in-state student cost for a public community college is $4,847 per year (according to the Community College Review).

If you have your sights set on ultimately achieving at least a bachelor’s degree, community college can help you earn transfer credits—such as required general education credits—at a much lower cost than at a four-year program. (You’ll want to confirm that the four-year university you’re eyeing will accept the credits.)

And if you’re not looking to get a four-year degree, getting your associate’s degree is still a valuable way to differentiate yourself in the job market.

All-in with a four-year degree

A bachelor’s degree still offers a greater lifetime earning potential than an associate’s degree, trade school certificate or high school diploma. However, the cost is increasingly becoming a barrier.

The College Board found that the average cost, including tuition, fees and room and board, for a year at an in-state public school reached $21,370 for the 2018-2019 school year. With a total price tag sometimes surpassing $100,000, it’s no wonder that undergraduates finish with thousands in student loan debt. The Institute for College Access & Success found graduating seniors owed an average of $28,650 in 2017.

Consider that many who begin college don’t finish or finish on time. The Wall Street Journal reported that 40 to 50 percent of students drop out (but are still on the hook for the years they attended), and of those with degrees, about one-third land jobs that don’t even require a degree. Plus, many students need more than four years to complete their degrees.

If your career path is clear and the end goal requires a bachelor’s degree or higher, then a four-year program makes sense. Or, if you place a high value on education itself and can afford it, the university experience may be worth the cost. Ultimately, you need to decide if the anticipated long-term benefits outweigh accumulating significant debt.

Offsetting the costs

Whichever route you choose, you have options for funding your education. Grants and scholarships could be available from sources like professional trade organizations, colleges and universities, and state and federal governments. Some places to start are Federal Student Aid and the financial aid office of your chosen program.

Finally, if military service is an interest, check into the Reserve Officers Training Corps, which provides educational benefits in exchange for mandatory active service. More than 1,700 college campuses around the country have programs for the Army, Air Force, Navy and/or Marine Corps.

Take time to understand your options before doing what you feel is expected. Your interests and abilities might point you in an unexpected direction that keeps you employed, engaged and advancing, without getting bogged down in too much debt.