Best Vocational and Trade Schools for 2019-2020
Vocational schools can be a great asset to anyone looking to move up in the world. Whether you want to climb the ranks at your current job or embark on an entirely new career, degree and certificate programs at vocational schools can usually be completed in two years or less. Plus, they can qualify you for some of the fastest-growing careers in the country.
Wondering if vocational school is right for you? Here's a quick checklist of reasons that you might consider a vocational program:
- You want to focus on subjects that relate directly to your chosen career
- You enjoy hands-on work and tasks
- You're interested in taking some, most or all of your courses online
- You're hoping to enroll where there may be less of an "academic" focus
- You want to streamline your training process and get to work ASAP
If one or more of these apply to you, then a vocational or technical school might be right up your alley. Don't forget to also explore the top vocational careers for an idea of which is right for you.
In order to give you a good idea of what top vocational schools can offer you, we gathered data on campus-based and accredited online vocational schools across the country. Then, we analyzed it to see which ones were came out on top. Our rankings address important school traits like program availability, schedule flexibility, career placement numbers, distance education options and more. We only considered the certificate and associate degree offerings at each school -- bachelor's degree plans are better suited to traditional universities -- and we made sure to include the job placement numbers and career longevity of graduates. You can learn more about our methodology below.
Degree and certificate programs at vocational schools can typically be completed in under two years. Plus, they can qualify you for some of the fastest-growing careers in the country.
How to Choose a Trade or Vocational School That's Right for You
Finding the right vocational school for you can seem like a daunting task, but the selection process tends to get a little easier if you break it down. Here's a list of questions you can ask yourself to help narrow your choices:
- Are you planning to keep your job while in school? If you're hoping to work full time while attending classes, you'll probably want to look for accredited online vocational schools that allow you to attend lectures and complete assignments on your own time. The key word to look for is "asynchronous," which means that students don't have to log in at set class times.
- Is your target school accredited? Vocational schools can be accredited in multiple ways. Certain degree fields have their programs accredited by industry associations, while general education content is typically accredited on the regional or national level. Check the U.S. Department of Education's Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs if you can't find accreditation info on your school's website.
- What's your budget? Different vocational schools tend to charge different amounts per credit hour. Gathering info on the tuition rates of several institutions in your area can help you find the most affordable option. Financial aid is a factor here, too -- make sure to apply for any grant or scholarships that you're eligible for. Learn more about financial aid for trade school and vocational students.
- What's your plan after graduation? If you already know what new career you want to go into, you'll want to talk to advisors at the schools you're considering to see what advantages each one might offer in terms of your specific goals. If you're going back to school to advance your current career, find out if your work experience can be counted toward your course credit.
It's also a good idea to visit the campus of a school you're considering, if you have time to make the trip. For now, though, check out our rankings of the best traditional and online vocational schools and find out how they can set you up to succeed in an exciting new career.
The 50 Best Traditional and Online Vocational and Trade Schools
Let's start with this: What exactly is a vocational school according to RWM.org? In order to be eligible for our rankings, institutions had to offer study plans that took two years or less to complete -- certificate and associate degree programs, typically -- and hold at least one institutional accreditation. They also had to award at least 30 percent of their degrees and certificates in career and technical programs and not offer any bachelor's degrees of their own.
A total of more than 700 schools made it into our study. Read on to find out what the best traditional and online vocational schools have to offer.
More than 28,000 students attended courses here in 2017, making it one of the largest institutions among our top vocational schools. The online student body here is similarly large -- nearly 45 percent of enrolled students took at least some of their courses in the virtual classroom, for a total population of more than 12,500 online learners. Sinclair also has a substantial international student presence, with nearly 1,200 students coming from countries other than the U.S.
Vocational programs offered by Sinclair: The roughly 250 degrees and certificates available at Sinclair is a larger selection than at any other vocational or technical school we surveyed. Such a selection could mean that students looking for somewhat rare degree plans might find what they're looking for here. Plus, students with a longer-term goal of earning a four-year degree may have an "in" via Sinclair's UD Sinclair Academy, which is a partnership the school has with the University of Dayton to help college map out a more affordable four-year degree path starting with the two-year school.
The Dayton school offers short-term technical certificates in subjects like digital design, airport rescue firefighting, healthcare data analytics and street food. Sinclaid offers one-year study plans in such fields as industrial robotics, aviation maintenance and supply chain management, plus full associate degrees in cyber investigation, healthcare simulation technology, sports and recreation education and more.
This central Michigan school is one of the largest two-year colleges in the Wolverine State, serving more than 25,000 students each year. It maintains two full-service campuses -- the flagship location in downtown Lansing and a satellite location a few miles to the southwest -- and provides specific vocational and technical training services at five affiliated learning centers throughout the region. Lansing Community College is a comprehensive community college, rather than strictly a vocational and technical school, but it still offers a wide range of traditionally vocational degrees and certificates.
Vocational programs offered by LCC: Different campuses of LCC feature different arrays of degrees, with the flagship Downtown Campus offering a healthy mix of academic and career-based study plans that includes massage therapy, insurance and risk management, medical diagnostic technologies and more. Notably, in 2019 LCC was awarded the designation of being a National Center for Academic Excellence by the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security for its cyber-defense program.
The West Campus catalog also contains a robust selection of vocational programs, including paralegal, utility and energy systems, construction management and heavy equipment repair. Nearly 40 of its more than 200 degree and certificate plans are available online, including the aforementioned programs in construction management and several traditional majors such as history, biology, English and geography.
Note: For Lansing Community College, students who reside in the school's district might find they are able to enroll at a significantly lower tuition rate than at the in-state tuition level factored into our rankings.
This medium-sized institution in the Texas panhandle sets itself apart from the pack in several ways. For one, it's immersed in the nationwide Achieving the Dream (ATD) initiative for improving community college success, and it has generated considerable success in improving access to education in its region by opening a counseling center, a career and employment center, a childcare center and a legal aid clinic. Its initiatives have shown so much promise, in fact, that it was named a co-recipient of ATD's 2019 Leah Meyer Austin Award for measurable improvements in student outcomes.
Vocational programs offered by AC: Close to 80 degree and certificate programs are available at Amarillo College, and the selection suggests that administrators are tuned in to the national employment market. Health services plans make up approximately 25 percent of the catalog, for example, and health professions are among the fastest growing careers in the country. The list of health services programs includes nuclear medicine, medical laboratory technology and emergency medical services, with radiation therapy and mortuary science available either on campus or online.
Established as Wyoming's first two-year institution in 1945, Casper College offers a close-knit learning environment with a primary focus on student success. Fewer than 3,800 students attended courses here in the 2017-18 academic year, which suggests that students who prefer plenty of elbow room should feel right at home. What's more, the student-faculty ratio here is a comfortable 13:1 -- nearly 20 percent better than the national average -- which indicates that professors should be able to have plenty of time to meet with students individually or in small groups to ensure that the class material is being understood.
Vocational programs offered by Casper: Just about every type of degree that can be earned in two years or less is available here, including a pre-law Associate of Business (A.B.) and Associate of Fine Arts (A.F.A.) plans in half a dozen subjects.
Programs for vocational students include Web design, nursing, electronics technology and retail management and merchandising. Degree plans in health science, fire science, agri-business and hospitality and tourism management among those being offered fully online.
Its administrative flagship campus may be located in the east-central city of Terre Haute, but Ivy Tech Community College has one of the widest service areas among all the vocational and technical schools in the country. Ivy Tech boasts no fewer than 40 locations throughout Indiana, from Fort Wayne and Michigan City to Evansville and Sellersburg. It also began its life as a vocational school, meaning that its roots stay firmly planted in career-focused programs even as it's grown into an ever more comprehensive institution.
Vocational programs offered by Ivy Tech: Degrees and certificates at Ivy Tech are offered through seven vocational and academic departments. More than 150 programs are available as of 2019, and some of the state's most advanced training facilities and technologies make studying subjects like network infrastructure and advanced automation and robotics all the more enriching.
Some exceptionally detailed certificate plans are available here as well, including ten or so specific systems certificates in automotive technology, and students can earn dozens of workforce certifications in fields like IT support, paramedic science and heating, ventilation and air conditioning technology (HVAC).
This northwestern Georgia school came into existence fairly recently, as the result of a 2009 merger between two former members of the Technical College System of Georgia. The young institution places a healthy focus on distance education, and its dedication is paying off -- enrollment numbers suggest that Georgia Northwestern Technical College is one of the best accredited online vocational schools in our study, with nearly 55 percent of students taking at least some of their coursework via digital delivery. GNTC also operates seven brick-and-mortar campuses, including an entire campus location devoted to aircraft maintenance training.
Vocational programs offered by GNTC: More than 200 total degree, certificate and diploma programs are available online and on campus at GNTC. Many of the more common subjects of vocational study are offered at multiple levels of concentration, often allowing students to choose between a full associate degree plan or a shorter certificate program in the same career field.
Students can earn short-term certificates in Microsoft Office, payroll accounting, residential electrical wiring and solar energy systems installation and repair, as well as associate degrees in surgical technology, automotive technology, computer support and culinary arts.
Originally founded in 1946, this institution in the Los Angeles metro area works to provide opportunities for academic transfer as well as train students to succeed in the workforce. It educates students of all ages, but the majority are fairly young -- nearly 60 percent of the student body was under the age of 24 in 2017-18. Mt. SAC also has one distinction that may be interesting to students who like to stay active. Mt. SAC features nearly two dozen organized athletic programs, and Mountie teams have won more than 60 state and national titles combined.
What vocational programs Mt. SAC offers: The catalog of academic and vocational programs at Mt. SAC features over 240 study plans. The institution offers two types of certificate: "certificates of achievement," which function as standard non-degree undergraduate programs, and "skills certificates," which require fewer credits and teach specific skills.
Two-year degrees such as Associate of Science (A.S.) plans in ornamental horticulture, respiratory therapy and drone camera operation are available here, as well as multiple certificates in animation, emergency medical services and computer programming.
This southwestern Georgia school has a seven-county service area, and it strives to provide educational opportunity in as many ways as possible. There's an Albany Tech Adult Learning Center in each of the seven counties it serves, for one, and its robust array of distance education programs makes it one of the best online vocational schools on our list. Students here make substantial use of the virtual classroom, as well -- no other school on our list featured a higher percentage of online enrollment than the roughly 67 percent reported at Albany Tech.
Vocational programs offered by Albany Tech: Training programs for traditional hands-on trades like welding, carpentry, masonry and electrical work are only offered on campus, but many of the more modern vocational programs can be competed entirely online. Distance education students can earn 60-credit A.A.S. degrees in computer support, cybersecurity, business management, criminal justice technology and more, as well as diploma programs that cover many of the same subjects on a lower credit load. Albany Tech also offers more than a dozen short-term certificate plans in business, fire science and criminal justice.
As New Mexico's largest overall institution of higher education, Central New Mexico Community College serves one of the largest student populations of any of the vocational schools that made our list. Total enrollment was over 30,000 in 2017-18, so students who enjoy the hustle and bustle of a busy campus are likely to thrive here. One standout feature of CNM is that it shows its commitment to innovation by working with industry partners to provide state-of-the-art facilities like downtown Albuquerque's STEMulus Center, an education and training facility for high-tech jobs.
Vocational programs offered by CNM: The three most popular programs at CNM are nursing, business and computer information systems, in that order, with emergency medical services and commercial truck driving not far behind. All in all, students here can choose among a list of nearly 90 subjects of study that includes automotive technology, geographic information technology, plumbing, veterinary science and an interesting niche health care field called polysomnographic technology, which trains experienced respiratory care personnel to help advance sleep research by tracking the vital signs and other parameters of sleep study participants.
Atlanta Technical College is another of the best online vocational schools by enrollment, reporting that around 60 percent of its students take some portion of their courseload via digital distance education. It's a fairly small school overall, educating roughly 4,000 students in the 2017-18 academic year, but a quiet, close-knit environment can be a great setting in which to study. The age range of students at ATC is fairly well distributed, as well, so students returning to school after spending several years away shouldn't feel too far out of place.
What vocational programs ATC offers: Using multiple delivery methods to ensure that its regional students have access to education is a big part of the mission at this Atlanta institution. Along with its solid stance as one of Georgia's accredited online vocational and technical schools, ATC offers a range of 20 degree and certificate plans that can be earned entirely through evening courses.
Prospective evening students can get trained in culinary arts, marketing management, medical assisting, HVAC technology and phlebotomy, among others. If you're open to a more traditional daytime schedule, programs in bioscience technology, dental assisting, hotel/restaurant/tourism management and more are also available.
About Vocational Schools Near You
As you can see above, certain states or metro areas are home to more of our best vocational schools than others. Sometimes the density of top schools is simply a product of population size -- look at all the schools in the areas around Los Angeles and Chicago -- and sometimes it has to do with factors that are a bit less obvious. Keep the following trends in mind if you are researching where to start your vocational training:
- See how well Georgia scored in our rankings, with three of our top 10 schools within its borders? Note that it achieves its high-ranking status by keeping enrollment costs down and supporting the substantial percentage of its students enrolled in accredited online vocational schools. The Peach State also shows its commitment to its workers via a noteworthy 99 percent job placement and college transfer rate from its vocational and technical schools. This success is likely due in part to initiatives like Georgia Work Ready, which aims to ensure workers in the state have the strong job and training opportunities.
- Should you be a interested in training in California, on the other hand, keep in mind it has the benefit of alignment between its vocational school system with its top statewide industry. Computer and electronics product manufacturing has an annual gross domestic product (GDP) of nearly $75 billion, and many of the essential jobs in the field -- think jobs in computer programming or IT -- are accessible to technicians with a vocational school education.
- There are also certain regions of the country without many top vocational schools. Many of those areas, including the Great Basin, the Badlands and the Big Bend of West Texas, can be explained by sparse population. However, know that just because a region doesn't have top vocational schools doesn't mean you can't find a good fit for your career path; community colleges and other institutions that didn't make our list may still have the program you are looking for.
- Keep in mind that other areas in the country may feature a disconnect between their top regional industry and the vocational school system. Wyoming is one such example, where the largest industry -- mining -- doesn't typically require its entry-level workers to have formal education. Still, to improve your job outlook down the line, workers in such areas should keep in mind it could be beneficial to train in related areas where there are vocational programs offered.
Using the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, we generated a list of schools that met the following criteria:
- Institution type is less than 2 years, greater than 2 & less than 4 years
- Accredited by at least 1 agency (institutional accreditation)
- The school falls under one of the following classifications: (Carnegie Classification 2015: Undergraduate Instructional Program)
- Associate's Colleges: Mixed Transfer/Vocational & Technical
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with 30-49% of awards (degrees and certificates) in career & technical programs.
- Associate's Colleges: High Vocational & Technical
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with more than 50% of awards (degrees and certificates) in career & technical programs.
- Special Focus: Two-Year Institution
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with typically more than 75% of awards in a single career & technical program
- Associate's Colleges: Mixed Transfer/Vocational & Technical
We ranked the resulting 711 colleges on the following criteria:
- Cost of attendance, based on the average net price for students receiving scholarship and grant aid, and the total cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- Number of Associate degree and undergraduate Certificate programs offered, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- Percent of undergraduate students enrolled in any distance education classes, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Full-time student retention rate & part-time retention rate (if full-time retention rate is not available, then use part-time retention rate), National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2017
- The graduation rate in 150% time, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Percent of students working and not enrolled 6 years after entry, College Scorecard, 2014-15
- Flexibility and student services, based on whether the school offers the following services, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Academic and career counseling
- Job placement services for graduates
- Mean annual earnings for students working 10 years after entry, College Scorecard, 2014-15
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2017-18, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements): 2014-15, College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
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