Published Date: Aug,15,2019
Now might be a better time than ever to think about getting an education from one of the many trade and vocational schools in Colorado. Roughly two-thirds of the key industries identified by the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade offer positions for trade school graduates, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked Colorado No. 4 in the nation for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-based jobs in 2015.
A few individual cities in Colorado may present especially good opportunities for workers with vocational school credentials. Graduates of construction or construction management programs may have the best luck in Colorado Springs, which was named among the 20 fastest-growing cities in the U.S. by Forbes in 2018, and licensed practical nurses (LPNs) in Denver earned median annual salary nearly 15 percent higher than the national average.
Why is Colorado good for vocational/career schools?
It's common knowledge that a bachelor's degree can help you increase your earning power, but associate degrees and certificates from trade and vocational schools in Colorado can have a strikingly similar effect. Data from the U.S. Department of Education reveals that 98 percent of career technical education (CTE) graduates in the state find jobs, apprenticeships or military service positions within six months of completing their programs.
Job quality is also high for graduates of career and technical schools in Colorado. A 2018 snapshot of the Colorado job market shows that 42 percent of "good jobs" — those that pay at least an average of roughly $55,000 per year — were held by workers without a bachelor's degree.
We've got plenty of information on how to make your transition into a trade school program, including a primer on how to apply for financial aid in Colorado, a rundown of the state's top vocational schools, and an intro to some initiatives designed to promote CTE certification in Colorado. Check out our school rankings and other resources below.
The 10 Best Trade Schools in Colorado
We graded nearly two dozen Colorado trade schools in categories like flexibility, affordability, program variety and student success, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics and other trusted sources. Whether you've just graduated from high school or you're a working adult looking to further or change your career, our list of the best trade schools in Colorado can help you figure out your next move.
More than 12,000 students attend courses each year at the three Arapahoe Community College campuses in the Denver metro area. The flagship location in Littleton is a full-service campus, featuring amenities like an art and design center and on-campus child care. ACC is also one of the top online trade schools in Colorado, reporting that 55 percent of its student body takes at least some of their classes via distance education.
What vocational programs ACC offers: A total of close to 100 degrees and certificates comprise the ACC catalog, including Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S) degrees in broadband technology and communication, law enforcement, personal training and game design and development. Certificate programs here cover subjects like Web design, paralegal work and mortgage banking.
Founded in 1970 with a single professor and just one available class, Fort Morgan has grown into a comprehensive community college while retaining the intimate feel of its early years. Approximately 1,200 students attend classes here each term, and the student-faculty ratio is 11:1 — more than 30 percent better than the average calculated for national universities in 2016.
What vocational programs MCC offers: Career and technical programs at MCC include A.A.S. plans in radiology technology, physical therapy assisting and media design, marketing and advertising. MCC also deserves a mention on the list of online trade schools in Colorado, reporting that more than 57 percent of students enrolled in 2018 took at least one course in the virtual classroom.
Average net price is a measure of college cost that subtracts the average amount of grant and scholarship aid from the total estimated expense of tuition, fees, books, room and board and other essentials. Aims Community College posted one of the lowest average net price figures of any career and technical schools in Colorado, estimating an average total cost of just over $7,300 per year for students who receive grant and scholarship aid.
What vocational programs Aims offers: Aims students hoping to take to the skies can enroll in A.A.S. programs for helicopter pilots, professional pilots or general aviation pilots. Aviation instruction doesn't stop there, either; the Greeley institution also offers an associate degree in air traffic control and nearly a dozen certificates for pilots and flight instructors.
Total enrollment at Front Range Community College was just shy of 20,000 in 2018, but the administrative campus in Westminster doesn't have to accommodate them all. The student body is spread fairly evenly among FRCC's total of four campuses and learning centers in the area north of Denver, and close to one third of students take some or all of their classes via online study.
What vocational programs FRCC offers: The selection of distance education degrees available here qualifies FRCC for a spot among the top online trade schools in Colorado. Criminal justice and highway maintenance management are just two of the nearly two dozen associate degrees offered online here, and online certificate subjects include retail management, health care customer service and multimedia technology.
Despite its fairly substantial enrollment of more than 20,000 learners, Pikes Peak Community College manages to maintain a close-knit learning environment and keep its average class size to just 16 students. PPCC might also be a great choice for adult students with children — the nationally accredited child development center on campus provides care and educational services for children from six weeks old to age five.
What vocational programs PPCC offers: Students hoping to go into the creative side of the construction industry can earn a certificate in architectural drafting at PPCC, and aspiring auto technicians have nine automotive technology certificates to choose from. The list of nearly a dozen online associate degrees includes programs in criminal justice, education and accounting.
Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology maintains a total of four locations around the country. This private, for-profit school located roughly between Denver and Boulder has one of the most intimate learning environments in the state — fewer than 340 students attended classes on the Broomfield campus in 2018, and the ratio of 10 students per faculty member is one of the lowest on our list.
What vocational programs Spartan College offers: Training at Spartan College's Colorado location is focused on four available degree plans. Associate degrees are available in airframe and powerplant technology, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and aviation electronics, or avionics. The HVAC program also offers a 10-month certificate option.
Community College of Aurora students paid the second-lowest average net price of any school on our list. Located in the Denver suburbs, this medium-sized institution is also one of the more demographically diverse trade schools in the state. CCA has been designated an official Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) and more than 62 percent of students come from non-European backgrounds.
What vocational programs CCA offers: If you're hoping to find a trade school program in the media arts, CCA might be the school for you. Half a dozen A.A.S. degrees in film and video media are offered here, including separate concentrations in screenwriting, acting and directing, post-production, cinematography and more, and most disciplines also offer similar certificate plans.
Founded in 1925 as Colorado's first two-year institution, Trinidad State Junior College offers a full college experience in a small town setting. Students hoping to get some help paying for college might want to give Trinidad State extra consideration — the institution reports that roughly three out of four students received some form of aid package in 2018.
What vocational programs Trinidad State offers: A few of the degree and certificate programs available here might be hard to find at other Colorado trade schools. Trinidad State prides itself on its electrical line technician programs, for example, and the Valley Campus in downtown Alamosa offers a range of degrees and certificates in soil and crop sciences and aquaculture and aquaponics.
Originally established in 1947, Colorado School of Trades is one of the few single-subject trade schools in Colorado. Just over 130 students attended classes here in 2018, and the numbers show that they tend to be fairly committed to their training. CST reported the highest rates of student retention and on-time graduation of any school on our list, and the graduate rate here was high enough to land in the top 20 of all trade schools we surveyed nationwide.
What vocational programs CST offers: Gunsmithing is the only subject available for study at CST. The program is split into four sections: a basic course that teaches fundamentals, a machine shop course for tool learning and two levels of firearm design and function training.
Founded as Sterling Junior College, this small-town institution has been educating students in northeastern Colorado since 1941. The nearly 1,500 students who attend classes here each semester experience a learning environment that isn't very common at other trade schools: NJC is an iPad college, meaning that students are required to bring an iPad to class to fully participate in the lessons. An iPad rental program is in place for those who can't afford to buy the required tablet.
What vocational programs NJC offers: A range of different types of programs are available here. NJC offers job training in trending career areas like wind energy technology as well as programs such as sports management and athletic training for students who are passionate about athletics and exercise.
Financial Aid for Vocational Students in Colorado
Colorado scholarships and grants aren't reserved for university students. Students in vocational and trade school programs can also find a wide range of financial aid programs that help them manage the cost of a college education.
Anyone looking for info on how to apply for financial aid in Colorado should start their search with the Free Application for Student Aid, or FAFSA. The information you provide on your FAFSA can be easily accessed by local, state and federal sources to determine your residency status and financial need for a wide range of different aid programs, so make sure to get it filled out and turned in before your school's FAFSA deadline. Take a look at our financial aid guide for more details about the FAFSA and other high-level financial aid info.
Here's a quick list of Colorado scholarships, grants and more that might help you reduce your tuition bill:
Colorado Student Grant - If you take at least six credit hours per semester in a program that leads to a degree, you may qualify for this statewide program. Funding is based on enrollment and typically awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
Colorado Work-Study - This aid program provides part-time work either on or off campus, often related to a student's major subject of study. The amount of the award tends to depend somewhat on the type of work you do and the level of funding available through your school.
Colorado National Guard Tuition Assistance Program - Most career and vocational schools in Colorado accept aid through this program, which provides up to $4,250 in tuition assistance to eligible members of the Colorado National Guard.
Initiatives for Vocational School Students in Colorado
Government agencies and other entities in Colorado also provide funding to help trade and vocational schools improve their programs and better serve their students. Here's a quick list:
Funding for vocational students in Colorado
The Career and Technical Act (CTA) adopted by the Colorado General Assembly provides more than $25 million in funding for CTE programs at career and technical schools around the state.
Colorado First and Existing Industry (CFEI) Customized Job Training Grant Programs allow in-state businesses to partner with Colorado Community College System (CCCS) schools and offer training programs targeted to their specific workforce needs.
Colorado policies that benefit vocational students
Relevant Information to Strengthen Education (RISE) is a statewide system through which schools can gather and share educational data with the goal of producing comprehensive educational research and formulating improved policies.
Launch My Career Colorado is a state-run jobs portal for Colorado residents that can help you explore various career paths and learn about trade schools, community colleges and universities in the state.
School-specific program initiatives in Colorado
First-time freshman students at Colorado Northwestern Community College can qualify for the $2,000 Vice-President's Scholarship or the $1,000 CCNC Dean's Scholarship if their cumulative GPA is 3.0 or above.
Around $1 million in scholarship aid is available to students at the Community College of Denver, including a program designed specifically to help students who are the first in their family to attend college.
Resources for Vocational Students and Vocational Job Seekers in Colorado
The Colorado Community College System website offers a wealth of info on the state's two-year schools as well as its active workforce incentives and other industry collaboration initiatives.
The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment features a jobs portal, assistance in finding the right training and other resources for job seekers.
Accreditation ensures that the education you receive either meets or exceeds the standard expected by employers. Public community colleges in Colorado are accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, while private schools are accredited by a range of agencies that includes the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges.
If you want to learn even more about trade schools in Colorado, check out the state page on Advance CTE. There's also some helpful info about trade and vocational schools in general at the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE).
Expert advice on vocational education in Colorado with Lauren Jones
Opting for a degree of any kind can be a tough decision. We wanted to know more about the importance of vocational education from an educator's standpoint. Lauren Jones is the Program Director for Career Guidance, Counseling & ACE for Career & College Readiness Initiatives through the Colorado Community College System. Here are her thoughts on the role of vocational and technical training in Colorado.
Lauren Jones is the Program Director for Career Guidance, Counseling & ACE for Career & College Readiness Initiatives through the Colorado Community College System.
Q: What is vocational education and why is it important?
A: First and foremost, we now refer to vocational education as Career & Technical Education (CTE). In Colorado our mission is: Colorado CTE delivers proven pathways to lifelong career success! CTE ensures a thriving Colorado economy by providing relevant and rigorous education that is connected, responsive and real. Nationwide CTE is defined as: to guide the future of education for all students. Its ultimate goal: to prepare students of all ages to succeed in education and careers -- and enable the United States to flourish in a dynamic and increasingly competitive global economy.
Q: How do employers view graduates of CTE programs in Colorado?
A: In Colorado, in 2015, employers view graduates of technical colleges with utmost desire, respect and quick placement. With a growing economy and high need in skilled career fields, we are seeing more placement of graduates in fields such as Energy, Hospitality & Tourism, Advanced Manufacturing and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) related fields. This type of training for the right person can be done in a short amount of time and can either be employer funded or be affordable in cost for families who may be in or around the poverty line.
Q: How can a CTE degree and training help students land a job?
A: These skilled workers/graduates typically graduate with a certificate (6 weeks to 1 year) or license and associate degrees. In Colorado, we focus on the national platform of Career & College Readiness (CCR) skills and interpret them to be Postsecondary Workforce Readiness (PWR) skills. A very teachable acronym for many in our secondary and postsecondary educational entities. PWR includes: problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, innovation, global & cultural awareness, collaboration, communication, work ethic, finding and using information technology and content/subject knowledge.
Q: What should prospective students consider before selecting a program?
A: Begin with themselves — who they are, their values, personality, learning, and leadership styles. Explore themselves first. Then begin to explore the related career paths aligned to their interest then available to them, then begin to plan and manage their academic path working in some personal financial literacy (cost/benefits to education and employment salary).
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
- Major Industries in Colorado, Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade, accessed July 19, 2019, https://choosecolorado.com/key-industries/
- Colorado, Advance CTE, accessed July 19, 2019, https://careertech.org/Colorado
- Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2017, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed July 19, 2019, https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292061.htm
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- College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, accessed July 27-28, 2019: Colorado, https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/?s=CO+FL&ct=1&ic=2; Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology, https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/?id=126605; Colorado School of Trades, https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/?id=126784;
- 21 Liberal Arts Colleges With the Lowest Student-Faculty Ratios, U.S. News and World Report, April 19, 2016, Jordan Friedman, accessed July 27, 2019, https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/the-short-list-college/articles/2016-04-19/21-liberal-arts-colleges-with-the-lowest-student-faculty-ratios
- Colorado Department of Higher Education, accessed July 19, 2019: Types of State Aid Available, https://highered.colorado.gov/Finance/FinancialAid/TypesofStateAidAvailable.html; Grants, https://highered.colorado.gov/Data/Research/Grants.html; Relevant Information to Strengthen Education (RISE), http://www.cde.state.co.us/rise;
- Tuition Assistance, Colorado Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, accessed July 19, 2019, https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/dmva/tuition-assistance
- Launch My Career Colorado Shows Post-Secondary Program ROI, Colorado Succeeds, accessed July 19, 2019, https://coloradosucceeds.org/work-based-learning/launch-my-career/
- Launch My Career Colorado, http://launchmycareercolorado.org/
- Colorado Career and Technical Education, accessed July 19, 2019: Career and Technical Act (CTA), coloradostateplan.com/administrator/career-and-technical-act-cta/; CTA Legislative Report, http://coloradostateplan.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/CTA-Legislative-Report-16-17.pdf
- Colorado Community College System, accessed July 19, 2019: CFEI Customized Job Training Program Fact Sheet, https://internal.cccs.edu/academic-affairs/training-funds/cfei-customized-job-training-fact-sheet/; CFEI Customized Job Training Grants, https://internal.cccs.edu/academic-affairs/training-funds/
- 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/