High school graduates have choices for postsecondary education. Historically, four-year colleges and universities were the standard path for college students. In the early 21st century, though, costs and technical career opportunities have increased availability and use of career or technical schools, as well as vocational programs at community colleges.
Goals after graduation often dictate whether a career school or university makes sense. Traditionally, four-year degree programs provide the necessary background to begin a career in an entry-level position. Work experience and more education may lead to advancement. Career schools may not offer as much salary in the long run, but graduates of nine-month to two-year trade programs often get competitive entry-level positions.
Programs vary between career schools and universities as well. Universities have a wide array of general education and vocational degree paths. In a four-year degree, students usually complete about two years of general studies in areas such as science, humanities and math, and then complete two years of program-specific courses to earn degrees in marketing, finance, math or social sciences. A career school program may have a handful of general education classes, but most two-year degree classes are program specific. Many trade programs, such as manufacturing, auto and welding certifications, involve one year or less of career-specific classes.
Investment and Motivation
If you are a high school grad with limited interest in continuing schooling, but a desire to be employable, a career school often makes more sense. The costs are usually much lower, in part because of less time in school, but also because of lower tuition costs for in-state public trade schools. Public universities are more affordable than private four-year schools. If you want to earn a broader education and a degree not available through a trade school, the four-year investment might pay off.
Earnings and Employment
While a gap between the earning potential with an associate degree or career program certification and a bachelor's degree is significant, some career program grads do find high-paying careers. According to an August 2011 Georgetown Public Policy Institute report, 28.2 percent of workers with associate degrees were earning more than people with bachelor's degrees. Bachelor's degree holders faced a lower unemployment rate in 2012, though, of 4.5 percent. This compared favorably to the 6.2 percent rate for associate degree holders, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.