SOURCE: NextStudent

June 19, 2008 14:50 ET

Career Colleges Named Best Alternative to Four-Year Institutions by Survey Respondents

PHOENIX, AZ--(Marketwire - June 19, 2008) - In a current economy marked by rising unemployment and steep job competition in which recent college graduates must contend with workforce veterans for the same limited positions, college students are placing more importance on degrees with immediately marketable work skills.

According to a recent survey by the Career College Association, almost 50 percent of respondents named career and technical colleges as the best alternative to four-year universities for preparing students for a competitive workforce. Only 17 percent favored community colleges, even though community colleges are typically less expensive than career colleges, with students taking on an average debt of just $3,200 a year from student loans.

The community college system has seen a sizable increase in enrollment over the past 10 years, with a growing number of students capitalizing on the schools' low costs, two-year degree programs, and flexible schedules that can accommodate a part-time job.

Career and technical schools, however, which gear their program instruction toward marketable, workforce-readiness skills in fields like nursing, computer technology, and automotive technology, have been steadily increasing in popularity and are now competing with community colleges for the same students: In the 2005-06 academic year, more than 2 million students -- 8 percent of the 25 million total students attending institutions of higher education -- were enrolled at career colleges.

Trade schools are also graduating students at a higher rate than community colleges: 64 percent of students enrolled in career colleges graduate within three years, compared to only 38 percent of community college students, who have a dropout rate of 45 percent.

By marketing the importance of workforce readiness over a traditional "ivory tower" education, explains Harris Miller, the president of the CCA, trade schools have been able to vie for the position as the go-to institutions for students looking to obtain immediately applicable job-market skills from their higher education.

"More and more people are seeing higher education as a pathway to a specific job or career," says Miller. "Apparently, today they're not convinced that traditional education, for all its important strengths, really serves that purpose well."

Offering certified programs for jobs in high-demand fields and established patterns of strong job-placement percentages after graduation, career colleges present an increasing appeal to students looking for a leg up in a saturated job market. According to MarketWatch, trade-school graduates leave school with a 70-percent chance or better of securing a job after graduation.

Some of the most up-and-coming jobs as technicians and specialists in fields like veterinary medicine, health care, and physical therapy call for the skill sets and training provided by trade schools: Of the 15 occupations projected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to grow the fastest between 2006 and 2016, only six require a four-year or professional degree.

Because career colleges are primarily private, for-profit institutions with publicly traded stocks, most aren't subject to the state budget cuts that can affect community colleges, leaving them in a better position to provide educational resources than some cash-strapped public community colleges. On the other hand, career colleges and technical schools generate their profits and revenues from generally higher tuition and fees than community colleges and public four-year schools.

While trade-school students are eligible for same federal financial aid -- including Pell Grants and subsidized and unsubsidized federal student loans -- as students attending community colleges or four-year institutions, the higher tuition costs at career colleges mean these students may need to find additional sources of financing, turning to high-interest credit cards and private student loans, which are often more costly than low-interest federal student loans.

Nearly 88.3 percent of students at for-profit institutions graduate with debt from student loans, and 10 percent of those students who graduate in debt leave school with student loan balances of $45,000 or more.

But as the CCA itself explains on its website, although career colleges do tend to cost more than community colleges and public four-year institutions, they're still generally less expensive than private non-profit colleges and universities. And the higher cost of trade schools, argue CCA officials, don't come without a return on investment: According to the U.S. Census data, trade-school graduates will make $9,230 more in their first year after graduation than those who hold only a high school diploma, eventually going on to earn over $230,000 more than high school graduates over a lifetime.

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