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Students at career and technical schools in Illinois are graduating into a job market that gives them plenty of opportunity to establish their careers. The agriculture, energy and advanced manufacturing industries are among the state's largest, and degree and certificate programs from Illinois trade schools can prepare you to get started in any one of those three sectors.
Some cities and metro areas in Illinois present especially high levels of opportunity, as well, for graduates whose training matches up with the local job market demand. The historical manufacturing hub of Rockford was recently listed among the top five cities in the country for modern manufacturing jobs. Graduates of construction trade schools in Illinois are likely to have good prospects in Champaign, which was the state's fastest growing city in 2017.
Why is Illinois good for vocational/career schools?
Affordability is one of the major reasons that you might attend trade and vocational schools in Illinois instead of four-year universities. The average full-time student at trade school or community college in the Prairie State pays a little more than $4,100 per year in fees and in-district tuition, while the average four-year university student spent nearly $14,000 for the same expenses over the same amount of time.
The number of students pursuing career technical education (CTE) programs in Illinois is on the rise, as well, which could lead to more state funding being directed toward making vocational training programs even better. Just 22 percent of students at the college level are enrolled in vocational and trade school programs, but more than 46 percent of high school students are taking at least some courses that can lead to CTE certification in Illinois.
There are dozens of career and technical schools in Illinois, so we put together a list of the best trade schools in Illinois to help you narrow down your search. Check it out below, and read on to the bottom of the page for helpful info on how to apply for financial aid in Illinois and which public initiatives are helping in the fight to make Illinois CTE degrees and student certifications more accessible.
Top Vocational Schools in Illinois
In order to make a comprehensive list of the best trade and vocational schools in Illinois, we analyzed a ton of data from U.S. Department of Education sources and listed the institutions from top to bottom. Here are the ten Illinois trade schools that put up the best numbers in affordability, flexibility, student success and more:
Located about 25 miles west of central Chicago, College of DuPage has grown in leaps and bounds since its founding in 1967. Around 26,000 students are admitted here each fall, making it the largest two-year college in the state by far. Students looking for schedule flexibility are likely to find it here, thanks to the hundreds of online courses available in the COD catalog.
What vocational programs COD offers: Students at College of DuPage have more than 150 areas of potential study. An Associate in Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree in construction management can prepare you for advanced positions at construction firms, and aspiring healthcare workers can choose from a range of high-tech health care programs, such as the certificate program in nuclear medicine.
Students hoping to attend online classes at the College of Lake County should have a large number of virtual classmates as potential study partners. Roughly one third of the student body -- more than 9,000 students -- enroll in in online or blended classes each year at this institution near the Wisconsin border. On-campus students here can join nearly 50 student organizations, clubs and discussion groups.
What vocational programs CLC offers: Cutting-edge skills are available through the CLC catalog, including advanced manufacturing degrees in subjects like automation, robotics and mechatronics. The Grayslake school also offers a career program certificate in alternative energy technologies that can prepare you to be either a wind turbine technician or a solar panel installer, the two fastest growing careers in the country as of 2019.
Waubonsee Community College focuses its efforts on personal and experiential learning, working to engage the students in its five-county service area with hands-on training and classroom instruction. Tuition rates are affordable here, with the average tuition and fees cost in 2018-19 coming in at nearly $1,000 less than the statewide average of $4,140 per year.
What vocational programs WCC offers: One of the more than 90 career-focused programs offered at WCC is a certificate in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which can prepare you to work with maps and spatial data in a range of industries, from architecture to mining to agriculture. Creative vocational programs are available as well, such as the certificate in audio production technology.
This institution in eastern central Illinois welcomes a student body of around 5,000 people each semester and encourages students to work toward innovative ideas in their areas of study. Lake Land College posted the highest graduation rate of any school that made our top ten, and it reported the state's second-highest percentage of graduates remaining gainfully employed six years after graduation.
What vocational programs LLC offers: Students who want to make their living on the airwaves can get their start with LLC's hands-on certificate program in radio broadcasting. Programs available here also support students of the traditional trades, with a non-degree program in residential wiring for construction workers and an array of welding programs that includes an A.A.S.
Joliet Junior College holds a unique distinction among trade and vocational schools. Founded in 1901 with an initial class of just six students, this institution in Chicago's southwestern suburbs was the first public community college in the nation. JJC has grown exponentially since those humble beginnings, and today it educates close to 15,000 students each semester on two full-service campuses and four regional learning centers.
What vocational programs JJC offers: More than 180 degree and certificate programs are on offer at JJC, including an online A.A.S. in computer programming that allows students to specialize in a specific computer language. Online business students have numerous degree and non-degree programs to choose from, as well, including either an A.A.S. or a certificate in management and supervision.
This comprehensive community college located halfway between Chicago and Rockford educates over 9,000 students each semester. High-quality childcare services, suitable for infants as well as pre-schoolers up to the age of 5, are available to students at Elgin Community College while classes are in session, which may have contributed to a first-year student retention rate that's one of the best among all two-year colleges in the state.
What vocational programs ECC offers: Career-focused study plans at ECC come in a variety of program lengths, from a phlebotomy certificate that requires just 4.5 credit hours to complete to a 60-credit A.A.S. in early childhood education. Individual online classes are available for students who need some extra flexibility in their schedules.
Carl Sandburg College is a western Illinois institution that has been serving students in the area for more than 50 years. It reported one of the lowest average net prices among all schools we surveyed, charging students less than $1,700 per year after grant and scholarship aid is applied. The main campus in Galesburg is supported by a branch location in Carthage and learning annexes throughout the region that provide dual-credit courses to high school students.
What vocational programs Sandburg offers: Dozens of vocational degrees and certificates are available at Sandburg. Students of mortuary science can earn either a standard or accelerated associate degree here, and those hoping to make a difference in the field of renewable resources can study bioprocess technology at the certificate level.
Sauk Valley Community College is one of the top online trade schools in Illinois by enrollment, reporting that more than 43 percent of its roughly 1,700 students took at least some of their courses via distance education in 2017. The student-faculty ratio here is just 13:1, roughly 20 percent better than the national university average, meaning that your professors are likely to have time to provide extra help if you need it.
What vocational programs SVCC offers: The online program offerings here -- such as an A.A.S. in accounting and a certificate in corrections -- focus mainly on business and criminal justice. Campus-based career certificates include paramedicine, computer numerical control (CNC) machining and separate programs for beginning, advanced and robotic welding.
Students who like an intimate learning environment should be comfortable at Richland Community College, where the NCES reports a ratio of just 14 students to each faculty member. Vocational programs are a main focus here, thanks in part to a state grant of $1.5 million to help the central Illinois institution enhance its workforce training efforts and better meet the demands of the region's job market.
What vocational programs Richland offers: Heavy equipment company Caterpillar is a major employer in the area, so graduates of Richland's manufacturing engineering technology and medium/heavy diesel truck technology programs won't have to look far for a prospective employer. Those looking to put their skills to work at a local hospital can earn an A.A.S. in nursing or health information technology.
This large institution in the southwestern Chicago suburbs serves more than 14,000 learners each year on its nearly 300-acre campus. Moraine Valley Community College offers an environment where non-traditional students may find a supportive peer group -- nearly one in four students begins their program here with some form of previously earned college credit, and one in six takes at least one weekend or evening class.
What vocational programs MVCC offers: A wide range of computer-related degrees and certificates are available here, including an A.A.S. in cloud networking and virtualization and a certificate in computer network security. The distance education catalog also contains certificates in database administration, computer support, and other IT disciplines that can be earned almost entirely online.
Trade School Financial Aid in Illinois
If you're hoping for some help paying for college, you're not alone. Luckily, Illinois offers college scholarships and grants to trade school students as well as those enrolled in university programs.
The most common first step to qualifying for loans, grants and scholarships in Illinois is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Once your FAFSA is on file, you'll be automatically considered for federal programs like the Pell Grant and your application process to any state-based or institutional aid programs gets easier. You can find more info on important financial aid concepts like the FAFSA in our financial aid guide for trade school students.
Here are a few of the Illinois college grants and scholarships that you might qualify for:
Monetary Award Program (MAP) - Students who are residents of Illinois and take at least three credit hours per term may qualify for this state-based program, which awards need-based grants of up to nearly $5,000 per academic year.
Illinois National Guard (ING) Grant Program - Active members of the Illinois National Guard who have completed at least one full year of service can receive additional tuition assistance on top of any Post-9/11 GI Bill awards they may receive.
Grant Program for Dependents of Police or Fire Officers- This program provides up to four years of college aid to spouses or children of Illinois police or fire service officers who were killed or disabled in the line of duty.
Initiatives for Vocational School Students in Illinois
There are also a range of programs in place to help campus-based and online trade schools in Illinois stay on the cutting edge of CTE instruction while keeping students enrolled and engaged until graduation. Here are just a few of the ways that the state of Illinois is looking out for its vocational students:
Funding for vocational students in Illinois
The CTE Improvement Grant -- an initiative of the Illinois Community College Board -- provides funding to help institutions improve existing programs and create innovative new approaches to career and technical instruction.
The State of Illinois also allocates more than $15 million in state fundingto individual institutions to further the mission of career and technical education and better prepare students to enter the workforce.
Illinois policies that benefit vocational students
The Partnership for College and Career Success is an initiative designed to help high school students get a head start on a vocational education by offering dual-credit programs and a range of one-off courses taught at high schools that allow students to earn college credit before enrolling in a degree plan.
Chicago's Partnership for College Completionis an advocacy group that analyzes shortcomings in the Illinois higher education system and makes far-reaching public policy recommendations about affordability, college credit transfer and more.
School-specific program initiatives in Illinois
The Friends of McHenry County College Foundation offers more than 80 scholarships to MCC students, including the Dwight Maness Memorial Scholarship for students pursuing an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree in criminal justice.
A long and comprehensive list of scholarships can be found at Triton College in Chicago, where the Automotive Scholarship can provide between $100 and $1,000 to students beginning an automotive technology program.
Resources for Vocational Students and Vocational Job Seekers in Illinois
The Illinois State Board of Education has a section of its site dedicated to raising awareness about CTE and career certification programs in Illinois.
The Illinois Community College Board is a great resource for students hoping to learn about the state's approach to technical and community education, as well as how vocational schools in Illinois factor into the regional workforce.
The Higher Learning Commission is the regional accreditation provider for trade schools in Illinois. Vocational programs are often co-accredited by industry groups, as well, such as dental hygiene programs being recognized by the Commission on Dental Accreditationof the American Dental Association.
If you're interested in some information on vocational education at the national level, Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) can be a great resource. For a deeper look into career and technical schools in Illinois, check the state's dedicated page on Advance CTE.
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