Beating the averages: When vocational training tops a 4-year degree

Written ByRichard Barrington

Averages are dangerous things. Some examples:

  • A climate with an average temperature of 65 degrees might sound fairly pleasant, unless that average is made up of daytime temperatures of 115 degrees and nighttime temperatures of 15 degrees.
  • A plane flying at an average height of 10,000 feet should be able to clear a 9,000-foot mountain, unless that average is arrived at by swinging wildly from 12,000 to 8,000 feet.
  • A high-school basketball team with an average height of six-feet tall might sound reasonably competitive, until you find out that half the team is seven-and-a-half feet, while the other half is four-and-a-half feet tall.

Just keep the dangers of relying on averages in mind the next time someone tells you that getting a 4-year degree will help your chances of getting a job and earning a higher income. What may be true in general does not apply in all cases and could be counter-productive in many situations. For millions of students, a vocational college might be better preparation for a successful career than a 4-year degree.

4-year college vs. vocational school

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2012, Americans with bachelor's degree were one-third less likely to be unemployed than the general population, and earned about 30 percent more. Numbers like these support the idea that students should pursue a 4-year degree, but again, remember the danger of relying on averages. These numbers represent averages derived from millions of people, while individual circumstances can vary greatly from those averages.

For example, here three situations where vocational training might be a better pathway to a career than a bachelor's degree:

  • When the cost of a 4-college is overwhelming. A persistently weak economy and rising education costs have radically changed the cost/benefit trade-off of a college education. A Rutgers University study found that nearly half of college graduates were finding it took several years to find full-time employment, and meanwhile 48 percent of them had college debts of $10,000 or more.
  • If your skills are more practical than academic. Students have different strengths and weaknesses. A mechanical genius might be hopeless at writing college papers, just as the editor of the Harvard Law Review might not know how to change a set of spark plugs. Don't fight your nature by pursuing an education for which you are poorly suited. You might just make yourself miserable and spend a lot of money in the process. Choose an education suited to your strengths.
  • If your chosen field requires specific technical training. An English degree doesn't qualify you to be a nurse. A bachelor's degree in biology may not help you get a job in air conditioner repair. Certain jobs require very specific training, which can often be obtained more quickly and cheaply than a 4-year degree. Start by figuring out what career you eventually want to pursue, and then work backward to figure our what qualifications are necessary to get a job in that field.

Any education, whether at a 4-year college or a vocational school, is going to cost you time and money. If you are going to make that investment, choose an educational program because it is going to help with your specific career objectives, and not because it is a good idea on average.