vocational and community colleges
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Why Vocational and Community Colleges Serve the Same Purpose

For those confused about the difference between vocational and community college, it’s less significant than you might think.

It’s an interesting time for community colleges. Recent media coverage about the importance of vocational schools has seemingly pitted them against community colleges, when in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Vocational schools, also known as technical or trade schools, offer many of the same benefits as community colleges to career-oriented students. And many community colleges include vocational certification as part of their program.

This isn’t to say that there is no difference between the two. Vocational or trade schools do offer programs that vary from those offered by community colleges. But these differences are all part of providing students with greater flexibility to find the program that best matches their needs. If you’re still wondering about the distinction between the two, here’s the run-down.

Vocational schools prepare for specialized trades.

For students with a specific trade skill in mind, such as welding and electrical, auto repair, culinary arts, or even some farming and land use certification, vocational schools offer programs that range from six months to two years in length. These programs are highly-specialized and lack the general education requirements of associates degrees.

Vocational schools also focus on practical skills, with some programs including paid apprenticeship programs that allow students to earn money while working toward their certification. Because of this, they’re quicker to obtain and cost less than community colleges. For students who know exactly the trade they’re looking for, these are an excellent option.

Many trade certifications are also in high demand these days. The top industries with the best career prospects for trade school students are in the skilled trades (plumbers and electricians), healthcare (pharmacy technician), and technology (information security or database administration). With their short turnaround-times, these are also attractive programs for students with prior education who are looking for a career change.

Community colleges offer a broader range of programs—including vocational certification.

The streamlined trade school approach works well for many, but the lack of general education credits can come with disadvantages. For instance, an associate’s degree in manufacturing systems that also includes courses in composition and public speaking can prepare graduates with some of the soft skills that will help them get ahead in the job market. Conversely, a culinary arts and hospitality management student who fulfills extra math credits may leave school better prepared to open their own business one day.

Many community college programs overlap with vocational schools, such that students have the option of graduating with professional certification or staying on a little longer to finish the full associate’s degree. This flexibility and access to a wider range of courses—including liberal arts courses—helps students benefit from both the practical skills of a technical college, and the broader academic development of a post-secondary institution.

A two-year associate’s degree from a community college can transfer to a four-year institution.

One significant difference between community colleges and trade schools is that the former are often used as a stepping stone toward a four-year bachelor’s degree. Most four-year universities require a certain number of general education credits as part of a well-rounded education. These credits can be a good way for students to explore other areas of interest and pick up more generalized knowledge that may come in useful later in their career. But they can also be expensive at university tuition rates.

Community colleges, with their diverse range of courses, offer attendees the chance to fulfill many of their general education credits, either before starting at a university, or as dual-enrolled students. This can happen either before, or during, a student’s enrollment at a four-year college. Students following the concurrent enrollment route can make progress on their degree courses while also fulfilling general education requirements. Meanwhile, students who are still deciding on their ultimate degree course can start at community college and transfer later once they’ve made up their mind. Either way, students benefit from lower tuition rates.

Not everyone needs to follow the same educational path—vocational schools and community colleges reflect that.

When most of us think of students, we think about people who follow a set educational path from pre-K through high school. But once students leave high school, their paths diverge radically. Some students go on to four-year universities, others take time off, some head straight into the workforce, and others try out various post-secondary institutions trying to find a good fit.

Vocational schools and community colleges are the best-equipped institutions to handle such a diverse group of people. From the dual-enrolling high school student to the learner working on a GED to the post-retirement lifelong learner, few other educational systems can serve such a wide range of needs and interests.

From a policy level, differentiating vocational schools and community colleges is splitting hairs. Both serve the critical public function of providing affordable, quality education to students who want to improve their prospects in the work force and advance their careers. While vocational schools often provide this benefit in a collapsed timeframe and community colleges offer a broader curriculum that is often a springboard to a four-year degree at another institution, both help make education more accessible while increasing the pool of qualified workers that are in such high demand these days. Therefore, when it comes to funding schools, policy makers shouldn’t view vocational schools and community colleges as “either/or,” but as “both/and.”