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Over the last few decades, the prevailing opinion was that a bachelor's degree was the best academic path to a fulfilling and well-paying career. These days, however, it's becoming clear that career and technical education (CTE) is also a legitimate way to help start your career off on the right foot.
The number of U.S. workers in manufacturing professions is on the rise again -- up more than half a million between 2010 and 2018 -- and federal data has recently shown that fewer than 20 percent of students successfully navigate the path from high school through a four-year college and into the working world. Career and technical schools in Pennsylvania can not only help students train for in-demand jobs but cut the time they need to spend in college by half or more.
Why is Pennsylvania good for vocational/career schools?
Trade and technical schools in Pennsylvania seem poised to make a big impact in the state's job market. Of the six key industries listed by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, over half of them offer ample career opportunities for graduates of certificate, diploma and associate degree programs.
Not only that, but training from career and vocational schools in certain Pennsylvania cities can help you align your skills to the needs of the local job market. Aspiring health care workers, for example, are likely to find their best opportunities in Youngstown and Philadelphia, while wages for graduates of HVAC trade schools in Pennsylvania were highest in cities like Pittsburgh, Reading and Hanover.
If you're thinking about taking your career path into your own hands, check out our list of top trade schools in Pennsylvania to get you started. Also, look toward the bottom of the page for vital info on Pennsylvania CTE student certifications and how to apply for financial aid in Pennsylvania.
The Best Trade and Vocational Schools in Pennsylvania
In order to compile our list of the best trade schools in Pennsylvania, we gathered data from U.S. Department of Education sources like the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and analyzed it with our in-house data team. Here are the ten Pennsylvania trade schools that scored the highest in categories like affordability, flexibility, degree availability and career success of graduates.
Founded in 1970, Westmoreland County Community College welcomes roughly 5,000 students each semester. In addition to the flagship campus in Youngwood, this southwestern Pennsylvania school maintains five regional satellite locations and two specialized training centers in public safety and advanced technology. Many classes here are available in the evening, on weekends or online, for students who need some extra flexibility.
What vocational programs Westmoreland offers: The specialized training facilities at Westmoreland allow the institution to offer some high-tech degrees, such as three certificates and an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree in advanced manufacturing and robotics. Students hoping for a career in applied electricity have two study plans to choose from, including an associate degree in electrical utility technology.
Students who prefer a close-knit learning environment should feel right at home at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. This small institution near the banks of the Conestoga River had only around 1,100 learners in its student body in 2018. What's more, the student-faculty ratio is just 15:1 -- around 7 percent better than the national four-year university average.
What vocational programs TSCT offers: The degree and certificate catalog here leans heavily toward the classical trades, featuring associate degree plans in carpentry, cabinetmaking, plumbing and masonry construction. Students hoping to take a quick route to the workforce can take advantage of special short-term programs designed to fill employment gaps in regional industries. The TSCT training program in metalcasting technology, for example, can be completed in just three weeks.
This Pittsburgh institution is one of the largest trade vocational schools in Pennsylvania, boasting a population of more than 16,000 credit-seeking students. On top of that, over 18,000 community residents attend non-credit classes here for personal enrichment and professional development. Despite its large enrollment numbers, CCAC manages to keep its average class size down to a comfortable 15 students.
What vocational programs CCAC offers: More than 160 degree and certificate programs are available here, including some in relatively uncommon healthcare disciplines like anesthesia technology. Vocational school students with artistic leanings have a few options to choose from here, also, such as the Associate of Science (A.S.) degree in architectural drafting and design.
Lehigh Carbon Community College was founded in 1966 and serves close to 7,000 students in central eastern Pennsylvania each semester. LCCC invests its time and energy in preparing students to succeed, even as early as high school. Around 1,900 high school students take dual-enrollment classes here, preparing them to graduate more quickly from their academic or vocational programs once they're ready to make the move to college.
What vocational programs LCCC offers: The catalog at this Schnecksville school is fairly diverse, including health care programs in fields as varied as dental hygiene, respiratory care and exercise science. A wide range of computer science and information technology (IT) programs are offered here, as well, such as an A.S. in computer forensics and digital security.
Just short of 5,000 students attended classes at Luzerne County Community College in fall of 2018, of whom around 1,800 were pursuing vocational or occupational degrees. Around one in four students enrolled here takes some form of distance education class, and the student-faculty ratio is a comfortable 16:1. LCCC also reported one of the largest percentages of graduates still employed six years after completing their degree or certificate program.
What vocational programs LCCC offers: Registered nursing is the most popular associate degree program at LCCC by far, making up more than 17 percent of all two-year degrees awarded here in 2017-18. It also offers a wide range of online study plans, including A.A.S. degrees in criminal justice, computer information systems and more via distance education.
Although its degree- and certificate-seeking enrollment sits at about 10,000 students per semester, Northampton County Area Community College serves a total of more than 35,000 area residents each year in credit and non-credit programs. The institution reports that fully 90 percent of graduates find employment within a year of graduation, and its alumni include a Pulitzer Prize winner and an Academy Award-winning director.
What vocational programs Northampton offers: With more than two dozen programs available entirely in the virtual classroom, Northampton is one of the top online trade schools in Pennsylvania by catalog size. Online students here can earn associate degrees in early childhood education, communication studies, sports management and more. Over 200 individual online courses are available as well.
This private, for-profit school located about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh was originally founded in 1904 as a business and secretarial college. Douglas Education Center kept its main educational focus on business disciplines for 95 years before expanding its catalog with an art program in 1999 and several others in the 2000s. DEC has the smallest student body out of any institution that made our list, reporting a total enrollment of around 220 students in 2018.
What vocational programs DEC offers: Students here have the option to enroll in a pair of unique creative programs. The special makeup effects program is endorsed by Hollywood effects legend Tom Savini, and the filmmaking program invokes the legacy of Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero.
Just 422 students were enrolled in Lancaster County Career and Technology Center in 2018, making it the most close-knit school on our list. This Susquehanna Valley school also reported some of the best graduation and retention rates among all career schools in Pennsylvania, with 90 percent of first-year students returning to complete their programs and nearly three out of four students graduating in three years or less.
What vocational programs LCCTC offers: The catalog here features several programs for the mechanically inclined, such as automotive technology and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC). A few health and science study plans are available as well, including a veterinary technology program that helps students build real-world experience with an 8-10 week externship.
Known locally as the "partnership college," this southwestern Pennsylvania institution has worked to contribute to the prosperity of its home region since it was founded in 1966. Community College of Beaver County recently affirmed its commitment to offering cutting-edge instruction for the area's advanced manufacturing and energy industries by breaking ground on a new facility for process technology education, and it boasts one of the top-ranked practical nursing programs in all of Pennsylvania.
What vocational programs CCBC offers: No fewer than five aviation-related programs are offered at CCBC, including a professional pilot training program that gives students around 250 hours of flight time. The process technology program for advanced manufacturing students also includes ample education in math, science, computer literacy and general employability skills.
Founded in 1945, New Castle School of Trades has been training trade school students in western Pennsylvania for over 70 years. This private, for-profit institution focuses on providing hands-on training to prepare students for jobs in mechanical and industrial fields. It also had one of the best on-time graduation rates among Pennsylvania trade schools, reporting in 2018 that 75 percent of students completed their training programs in three years or less.
What vocational programs NCST offers: Multiple study tracks here focus on the repair and maintenance of internal combustion machines, such as the programs in diesel and heavy equipment repair and motorcycle and power equipment technology. The building technology program teaches all aspects of construction, including framing and carpentry, brick and block work and interior and exterior finishing.
Trade School Financial Aid in Pennsylvania
Aspiring trade school students might not know about the range of financial aid options that may be available to help them afford the cost of their vocational education. In this section, we'll talk about the best ways to set yourself up for Pennsylvania college scholarships and grants as you're getting ready to train for your new career.
If you've done any research about how to apply for financial aid in Pennsylvania, you've probably heard about the FAFSA. Short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the FAFSA is the main gateway to student assistance at the federal level. Many state and institutional aid programs also use the information on your FAFSA as part of their application process. For more information on this important document and other top-level steps for student aid seekers, check out the financial aid guide on this site.
Here are a few of the top Pennsylvania scholarships and college grants that you might qualify for:
- Pennsylvania State Grant - Students who meet the eligibility requirements for this statewide aid program can receive annual awards of as much as $2,100 for community college programs or $3,700 for nursing, business, trade or technical school.
- Pittsburgh Promise Scholarship - City residents who attend Pittsburgh public schools from 9th through 12th grade may qualify for up to $5,000 in annual tuition assistance, provided they maintain a GPA above 2.5 and an attendance record of 90 percent or better.
- Partnerships for Access to Higher Education (PATH) - Students who have already been awarded a grant or scholarship by a Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) partner may qualify for up to $2,500 in additional assistance through this program.
Initiatives for Vocational School Students in Pennsylvania
Whether they contribute to program development or help create grants and scholarships for undergraduates in Pennsylvania, initiatives like these are designed to help extend vocational school access to any student who wants it.
Funding for vocational students in Pennsylvania
- The Pennsylvania State Apprenticeship Expansion Grant provides funding to companies hoping to create apprenticeship programs in the energy sector.
- The Teacher in the Workplace (TIW) grant program makes a total of $2.6 million in funds available for K-12 teachers who want to introduce their students to workforce concepts and open up discussions about vocational education.
Pennsylvania policies that benefit vocational students
- The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center has proposed that a statewide Pennsylvania Promise program be developed, extending the conditions of the Pittsburgh Promise Scholarship to students throughout the state.
- PAsmart is an initiative at the state level that aims to increase student preparedness for emerging jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career fields.
School-specific program initiatives in Pennsylvania
- Pennsylvania College of Technology offers hundreds of institutional scholarships, many of which are reserved for students in a specific field of study. The Sarah M. Ellegood Dental Hygiene Scholarship is one such award.
- More than 500 scholarships await students of Montgomery County Community College, including the Montgomery County Scholarship for in-county residents attending the school.
Resources for Vocational students and Job Seekers in Pennsylvania
- The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has information on CTE programs at vocational colleges as well as at the state's secondary schools.
- Job seekers and aspiring students alike can make great use of PA CareerLink, a resource presented by the state's Department of Labor and Department of Industry and Human Services
- It's important to ensure that the school you attend is accredited. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education is the primary regional accreditor of Pennsylvania institutions, and the Pennsylvania State Board for Vocational Technical Education accredits vocational schools at the state level.
There's plenty more information available on trade and vocational schools in Pennsylvania and elsewhere throughout the country. If you're hungry to learn more, check out the PA page on Advance CTE and do some exploring at the site of the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE).
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 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