The start of a new semester is always an exciting time. And for those in their last year of high school, senior year is often filled with thoughts of what’s next.
“When I started my senior year, I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation,” says Josh Heim, a diesel technician at Hoxie Implement in Hoxie, Kansas.
Most high school students assume they’ll continue their education after graduation. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll head off to a four-year program at a traditional university.
Many instead consider the benefits of a community college or technical school. Heim opted out of university education and instead decided to go to Northwest Kansas Technical College in Goodland, Kansas.
“I decided to go to tech school because it’s only a two-year program and it’s about half the cost per year of going to a university,” he says.
It’s Not Just About a Job
For certain families, the idea of not going to a traditional, four-year college is never up for discussion — especially if they have the money (and their child has the grades) to attend an affordable state school.
But many students feel as though once they’ve graduated with their bachelor’s degree, many employers don’t care about their educational background.
Freelance writer Kat Boogaard felt this way after she finished her degree. “I work in an industry where my education isn’t necessarily a qualification,” she says. “I hardly need to send in a traditional résumé for consideration — as a freelance writer, all of the work I receive is based solely on my previous published samples and my professional reputation.”
This leads many to preemptively wonder, why did I sink all of these dollars into a degree when nobody asks about it?
It’s not an unfair question to ask. While a degree is a necessity if you want to go into a highly specialized career path (such as medicine), it may not be necessary for individuals pursuing a career in fields like sales, customer/client services, or information technology, where emphasis is primarily placed on career experiences, special skills, and references.
Such a consideration is important when determining whether you want to attend a four-year college, community college, or a technical school. While having a degree is helpful in finding a job, depending upon your long-term career goals, it may not be wholly necessary.
“My college degree still has value to me — it was an incredible experience in terms of the skills I learned and the people I met,” adds Boogaard. “Even if it doesn’t mean much to the people who employ me.”
If you seek an enriching four-year educational experience (and can afford it), then go for it. But there are a number of financial (and professional) benefits of taking an alternative educational route.
Benefits of Community College or Technical School
Programs at community colleges and technical schools have become more popular in the past few years. Ben Schears, president of Northwest Tech, says that the current trend is in line with market demand.
“The economy is experiencing a shift, which has led to more demand for trade skills,” Schears says.
“Especially in rural America, there is a real shortage of some of these core technical skills, like electricians, heating and cooling professionals, and construction contractors,” Schears adds. “Even in the cities, these skills are in high demand.”
In addition to teaching the traditional skills, technical schools are expanding their programs to fill other needs. For example, Northwestern Tech added programs on mobile app development and precision agronomy — also known as satellite farming. But an exhaustive, modern curriculum aren’t the only benefits:
1. Lower Student Loan Debt
The lower price tag is one of the biggest benefits, according to Nikol Nolan, executive director of student affairs at Colby Community College in Colby, Kansas.
“Our credits cost students only $67 per hour. Plus, most classes do transfer to universities, so students who decide to continue their education after coming to Colby can save a lot of money,” Nolan says.
Schears also stresses the cost factor. “We try to graduate our students with as little debt as possible. The average student loan debt for our students is around $7,000,” he says in regards to a two-year program.
With the average student loan debt at $32,371 according to the Federal Reserve, attending a community college or a technical school can help students save themselves from needing to borrow as much money as they might otherwise.
2. Increased Earning Potential
Long-standing statistics and studies have shown that students with postsecondary education have a much higher earning potential than those with only a high school diploma. So does that benefit hold true for students who attend a community college or technical school?
Students with degrees from community colleges can expect to earn more than those with a high school diploma, according to Seth Macon Carter, president of Colby Community College, as well as data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS).
“Our students’ earning potential is right in line with those who have a four-year degree,” Carter says.
“And technical college graduates’ earnings tend to be even higher than those from community colleges,” he adds.
BLS data confirms Carter’s statements. While the average associate's degree holder makes roughly $3,000 more than an individual with no degree and attains an average salary that hovers around $43,000, certain professionals who have graduated from a technical college (such as an app developer) can make upward of $85,000 a year.
These earnings far exceed the average earnings of a four-year college graduate, who can expect to make $50,004 their first year out, according to the National Association of Colleges and
Heim notes that his starting salary after graduating from Northwest Tech in 2017 was higher than many of his peers with four-year degrees. Heim is also happy that he didn’t have to work as an intern to get hands-on career experience.
“A four-year degree takes twice as long to complete, plus a lot of students have to work internships for free to gain experience,” he says. “With a technical degree, you get to skip that because you get hands-on experience and classroom time during your program.”
3. Starting Your Career Sooner
Students at a technical school can expect to start earning a living and gain real work experience much sooner.
“Technical schools used to be a last resort,” Schears says, “but thanks to people like Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs and others, there is a change in perspective. You can earn a decent living with a technical education.”
4. Determining What’s Best for You
It can be difficult to make a decision between a four-year university, community college, and technical school, even after weighing the benefits and drawbacks of each. Soon-to-matriculate students need to ask themselves a series of key questions to self-assess where they will be most successful.
For those who are still undecided as to whether a four-year education will be beneficial to them, a two-year program can help them gain a sense of whether or not they should continue their education.
“Community colleges are a good choice if you’re still on the fence about which direction to go with your career,” says Darko Jacimovic, CEO of career resource site What to Become. “They are inexpensive compared to major universities, and you can start a program knowing that if you change your mind, you won’t owe tons of money in student loans.’
“Community colleges and technical schools offer you the peace of mind you need to know if pursuing a certain career is feasible for you,” adds Andrew Swapp, an instructor at Mesalands Community College.
Alternatively, if you are dead set on a specific passion — and have a drive to do tactile, hands-on work — then a technical school is your best bet.
“If you’re someone who has a passion for working with your hands and want to learn the skills to serve a trade industry, a trade or technical school is a more viable, and likely more affordable, option,” indicates higher education professional and former commercial roofing consultant Eric Mochnacz.
“I am confident in saying if you know how to successfully install a commercial roof, you could find a job faster than the hundreds of people applying for human resources jobs on the daily,” Mochnacz adds.
The Benefits of Community College and Technical School: The Bottom Line
In the end, however, it’s important to consider your education not just as an entry point to your career but in the context of your own love of learning.
If, after finishing high school, you don’t feel strongly about continuing your education and feel you can find a satisfying career with a community college or technical degree, there are benefits to taking the road less traveled.
Conversely, having a four-year degree, even if it’s irrelevant to your career path, is still an achievement that demonstrates to your prospective boss that you can handle the rigors of adult employment.
“A degree serves as a measure of achievement, one that shows employers you are someone who is reliable and consistent with your life choices,” Jacimovic says. “In other words, it’s a sign that employers can trust you honor your commitments, which is a highly sought-out trait.”
Consider your desire for further education, in addition to how your degree will relate to what you want to do as a career, to make a decision in confidence.
Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney