College application season is quickly coming to an end. The time for students to frantically finalize essays, get letters of recommendation, and submit transcripts is almost over.
And for those who have sent in their applications, the rest of the year is often filled with thoughts of what’s next — but for others, uncertainty lingers as it relates to their next steps.
“When I started my senior year, I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation,” says Josh Heim, a diesel technician based in Hoxie, Kansas.
Most high school students assume they’ll continue their education after graduation. But many aren’t necessarily waiting for an acceptance letter from a four-year university; instead they’re considering the benefits of a community college or technical school.
Heim was one of those students; he opted out of a traditional university education and instead decided to go to Northwest Kansas Technical College in Goodland, Kansas, where he learned how to maintain and fix automobiles that run on diesel engines.
And he isn’t the only one — with the cost of four-year college trending upward, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, prospective students are weighing all the options available before deciding on post-grad plans.
Heading Into the Working World
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 the grades to attend an affordable state school. But many students feel as though many employers don’t care about their background once they’ve graduated.
Freelance writer Kat Boogaard thought 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 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. Though a degree is a necessity if you want to go into a highly specialized career path (such as medicine, engineering, or law), it may not be necessary for a career in fields like sales, 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, a community college, or a technical school. Though having a degree is helpful in finding a job, depending on your long-term career goals, it may not be wholly necessary from a financial perspective.
Of course, there are some who still appreciate their four-year colleges, even if their careers didn’t necessarily benefit from it.
“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 professional and financial 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 — a response some attribute to demands in the labor market.
“The economy is experiencing a shift, which has led to more demand for trade skills,” says Northwest Tech President Ben Schears. “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.“
In addition to teaching traditional skills, technical schools are expanding their programs to teach developing skill sets.
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 — here are other common perks that come with attending a two-year educational program:
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 $133.50 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.
For many students, this can be a significant difference. Elsewhere in the state, students at the University of Kansas pay $339 per credit hour, plus fees, room and board, and book costs. And undergraduates at Kansas State University are expected to pay $312.50 for each credit hour — more than twice the cost of a community college.
Schears also stresses the ability to manage this relatively low student debt as an attractive facet of attending community college. “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.
Most college students graduate with an average of $28,950 in student debt, according to research conducted by the Institute for College Access and Success. Because of this, attending a community college or a technical school can help students save themselves from taking on massive debt in order to further their education.
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. 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 $46,124, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
The average professional who has graduated from an elite technical college, however, tends to earn as much as an Ivy League or military academy graduate, according to the same source.
These earnings far exceed the average earnings of a four-year college graduate, who can expect to make $55,280 their first year out, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Heim notes that his starting salary after graduating from Northwest Tech in 2017 was higher than many of his peers with four-year degrees — and he was pleased that he was able to enter the workforce right away.
“A four-year degree takes twice as long to complete, plus many 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 gaining real 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.”
This is especially helpful for students who may not be able to afford many years in college, or who may not be willing to put themselves in too much debt for their education.
Technical schools are also great for students who may need to support themselves or their families and cannot afford to spend too much time without a steady income stream. The sooner a student graduates, the sooner they can start earning a full-time salary, making the turnaround time considerably shorter than a traditional four-year college.
4. Determining What’s Best for You
It can be difficult to choose among 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 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 they should continue their education.
“Community colleges and technical schools can 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.
“Given their inexpensive nature (in comparison to major universities), students can start a program knowing that if they change their minds, they won’t owe a ton of money in student loans,” Swapp adds.
Alternatively, if you have a specific passion, and the 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 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 believe 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.
Consider your desire for further education, but also how your degree will relate to what you want to do as a career. Once you do that, you can make a decision with confidence.
Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney.