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A traditional four-year degree program is not for everyone. Considering an alternative such as a trade or vocational training program, particularly if you’re not in the top of your high school class, may be a better choice. The study options are vast, but most fit into two categories; either Goods-Producing Industries (i.e. agriculture, forestry, manufacturing, construction,  oil and gas industries) or Service-Providing Industries (ie. transportation, utilities, real estate, education, leisure, hospitality, repair, maintenance). Trade and vocational training can make the difference between a lucrative career and struggling to make ends meet, since most high-paying trades require licensure and extensive training.

Degree Program Types

With Trade and Vocational degrees, it’s a little difficult to define degree programs. A Community college may offer both AA/AS/AAS (applied) or simply a certification in the trade of your choosing. While a specific vocational school will rarely use the “Associate degree” language in favor of terms such as “certified” and “licensed” skill programs.

(check out: What is the Benefit of Going to a Community College?)

Community colleges may require some general education courses in addition to specific trade coursework. Do your homework; if you are not interested in a liberal arts education, seek schools with (the often shorter) certification programs. Be sure to check out or most recent Community College rankings here at Value Colleges:

Top 50 Best Value Community Colleges of 2016

Top 50 Best Value Online Community Colleges of 2016

Online vs. Residential Programs

Online associate degrees are plentiful. Most offer 2 year programs similar to community college offerings.

(check out: Are Online Degrees a Good Investment?)

Online programs are of course very useful for those already in the workforce or for those with family obligations and tight schedules. For hands-on majors, though, you may want and need the accessibility of a brick and mortar school to attend. Service industries often require apprenticeships or internships before seeking employment in the given career.

Cheapest Rankings

Consider Value College’s Top 10 Cheapest Online Universities. Many of these schools are focused on online bachelor degree programs; however, you may find some offering two-year degree programs as well.

Financing Education

One of the benefits of stopping at a two-year degree program or trade school is the obvious cost savings. According the The College Board, the average bachelor’s degree at an in-state public, nonprofit college, (including room and board) will cost a total of about $75,000! The cost for a private, non-profit college (including room and board) will set students back almost $170,000! Now compare that with the average associate’s degree program, priced at a total of $22,000 (including tuition, reasonable rent, and board).  It’s pretty clear to see where the real win is in affordability.

Of course one can save money by commuting from home or arranging similar cheap housing options. After the exploration of those basic needs, the first thing a student ought to do is fill out the FAFSA. Community colleges work the same way as 4-year traditional colleges: all government Financial Aid must be assessed through that golden form. Be sure to follow directions carefully; one mistake can prevent receiving the aid you need to pay for your education. Another option is to seek scholarships

(check out: Top 50 College Scholarships for 2015-16 and Top 50 Colleges with the Lowest Tuition Cost)

Also available is the Federal Work Study program. Students can obtain part-time work through their university or community college. One of the many benefits to this program is that it lends students schedule flexibility not often found in the common workplace while trying to balance this school/work phase in life.

Federal students loans should be a last resort, but are often necessary for most students. Take only what you expect to need for each semester and keep track of your borrowing obligations. Loans need to be paid back upon graduation (in addition to any interest the loan accrues), and although a 6 month grace period is often given, full loan forgiveness programs are rare.

Career Paths and Salary Information

According to National Center for Educational Statistics, young adults with a bachelor’s degree earned nearly 30 percent more annually than associate’s degree holders. The NCES statistics further show those with technical/trade degrees bring home an average salary of $35,720.

And while you might not get rich, the real benefit in skilled trades is the job security and a very low risk of unemployment due to outsourcing. The fun website, Art of Manliness has a compelling piece on skilled trade careers: as they explain, “While jobs in the information/tech/customer service sectors can always be shipped away, the careers that require literal hands-on work cannot be.”