Should my kid go to trade school or college?

So your kid is somewhere in their last two years of high school. They’re 17 or 18 years old, and like most kids that age, they may have a different idea of what they want to do once they’re an adult every other week. Heck, most adults fantasize about changing jobs every other week, so it’s not like we ever really grow out of that phase. And with the cost of college being what it is today, most parents have entertained fantasies of either winning the lottery, having their kids earn a sports scholarship, or simply not going to college in order to avoid paying an arm and a leg for additional schooling. Because of this, lots have parents have started to look at alternatives to traditional four-year colleges for their kids. Some kids have even taken the initiative themselves, realizing they don’t want to be in debt up to their eyeballs when they graduate. So a question that comes up frequently is whether your child should go to trade school or college.

There is no hard and fast answer. But there is a great series of questions that you can ask to figure out if the idea should be explored further.

First, we need to make sure we develop these questions from a neutral perspective when it comes to the choice. Unlike previous generations, where the majority of students didn’t go to college, that trend has now reversed, with 69.8% of high school students attending college in 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Yes, that’s a real organization. So the norm for high school students now is to go to college. But that doesn’t mean it is necessarily the best option for your child.

So what kinds of questions do we need to ask? Here’s a good starting point:

      • What does your child enjoy doing? I know this isn’t directly related to education. But there are multiple reasons for getting an education – to obtain knowledge, to develop processes and to help make decisions on a day-to-day basis, and to acquire concrete skills to provide for yourself and your family. Enjoyment doesn’t necessarily factor into the first two reasons mentioned above. But it does factor into the third. Building an education plan around a child continuing to do what they enjoy helps with engagement, and also potentially building a longer-lasting career than a child who ends up studying something they aren’t interested in just to make money. A child who enjoys hands-on work and is excited about the prospect of getting a job quickly after high school may be a good fit for trade school.
      • What does your (and your child’s) ability to pay for further education look like? We shouldn’t make educational decision just based on money. But money has to factor into the decision, simply because in having your child choose to go to college, there is a massive price tag there that doesn’t exist for trade schools. Does it pay to take out a huge financial aid package made up of a lot of student loans for a mid-tier school? Not usually. So you have to be willing to acknowledge the financial reality of what types of colleges are realistically in your price range, and whether the programs there match up with what your child wants to study and can provide them with a solid footing coming out of college.
      • How driven is your child to succeed academically? I’m not talking about the level of success they’ve seen. I’m talking about their ability to motivate themselves to work in the absence of adult supervision. One of the major problems that families and students run into is when a poorly-motivated student goes to college, but isn’t able to complete the work they’ve taken on, and ends up having to drop out for one reason or another, usually related to academics. If you end up in this situation and you’ve taken out debt to pay for college, you now have a bunch of debt but don’t have a degree or any credential showing you have skills for a job. Trade school programs, with their quick turnarounds, may be an answer for students who may struggle academically once they’re on their own at college.

My perception is that over the last generation or two, the trades have gotten a bad rap as a place that kids go if they can’t find anywhere else to continue their education. I happen to think there’s actually a huge opportunity for smart kids who can come in and learn a trade, but also possess the knowledge to potentially run a business in the trades once they get some experience after trade school. I’ve seen college graduates making minimum wage and trade school graduates making close to a million dollars. Education matters, but not in the way most people think it does. It is not simply about acquiring the most expensive degree you can obtain using all means possible. It is about acquiring the right education for each person, which does not mean four years of college in all situations. Take the time to understand the different options out there, and give trade schools a real look if any of the questions here are making you think of your son or daughter.