Pros and Cons of a Vocational Degree

For years the focus has been on getting students to four-year colleges, but for some there’s a better answer. Certificate programs are a quick and less expensive way to start a lucrative career, especially if you want to skip the general core requirements you’d be expected to fill at a university. Certificate programs get straight to the point, only teaching the student what he or she needs to know in order to perform well in a particular field. This can be the ideal solution for someone who might otherwise have started college and never finished it.

Remediation classes, which colleges require students to take if they’re not properly prepared for regular courses, also have a negative effect on graduation rates. Certificate programs help to bypass this problem. At a university, a computer science major might get stuck doing a remedial course in composition, which, though it’s certainly helpful, doesn’t relate directly to his major. In a certificate program the regular courses on the side are ignored, so remediation isn’t generally necessary. In addition, at a certificate offering institution like Tennessee Technology Centers even those who aren’t fully prepared for the reading, writing, or math requirements of their particular program still aren’t held back. Instead they receive tutoring in the areas they need extra help with, and meanwhile they’re still working on their certificates, advancing at whatever pace they’re comfortable with. This is the beauty of personalized learning, and it’s particularly easy to apply to a certificate program because of its simple and direct focus on career preparation.

Statistics help to clarify that the benefits offered by certificate programs are even better than might be expected. According to statistics cited by American Radio Works in their article, “Another Kind of Higher Education,” a significant percentage of certificate holders are earning more than college graduates by age 30.

    • 43% of certificate and license holders earn more than associate’s degree holders.
    • 27% earn more than bachelor’s degree holders.
    • 31% of associate’s degree holders earn more than bachelor’s degree holders.

Thus, these short programs can be even more beneficial than the longer programs, which is particularly helpful to know for the many people who can’t attend a four-year college, whether for financial or other reasons.

Another article, entitled “Study Examines Vocational Certificates’ Big Rewards,” comes to similar conclusions, but with some interesting extra details. For example, they found that gender matters, with men generally experiencing greater benefits from their certificates than women. Also, the type of certificate matters, meaning the subject of study and the career it is tied to. By and large, information and technology service careers are the most productive for certificate holders: men with certificates in these fields earn more than 72% of men with associate’s degrees and 54% with bachelor’s degrees, while women with the same sort of certificates earn more than 75% of women with associate’s degrees and 64% of women with bachelor’s degrees.

Perhaps the most important finding of the study is that high school graduates with low standardized test scores who earn a certificate will, on average, earn slightly more than students with some college, but no degree. Thus, the certificate offers some hope for a successful future, even for the academically challenged or shortchanged. Such students don’t have to feel the pain of starting college, not finishing it, and then having to pay for it anyway. In order to make the right decision, however, these same students need to be taught to be aware of both options and their benefits, and they need to learn how to seriously consider both their financial and academic abilities to pursue either before committing to a decision with such long-term effects.

For those who are preparing for skilled jobs in the trades or through certificate-granting programs, I’ve co-authored a book called THE CAREER TOOL KIT (Pearson) which will be out in a third edition later this fall. This reference guide helps students make the connections between what they are learning in school and what the employers they will work with will require of them whether they are working in a company of three of fifty and whether they are painting houses, wiring offices, fixing plumbing or starting their own massage therapy business.

Whether students decide on vocational degree, a two year degree ,or a four year degree the most important part of the equation is how hard they are willing to work, how open they are to learning new things on a daily basis and how much they bring to the table to improve the company for which they work.

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