The Chalk Blog

Trade School vs. 4-Year Degree

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Adapting to How Students Learn Besttrade schoolBlake was a junior in high school in my first year of teaching. He was in my 6th period of the day. His hair flopped over his twinkling and mischievous eyes, and we had a great relationship. We’d joke around and tease each other. He drew a lot- hysterically funny comics, especially. He was a gifted swimmer who consistently performed well in the pool. He also liked to create things and tinker around with different materials. 

Unfortunately, he just didn’t want to be in my English class. Blake missed assignments, failed tests, refused to retake or submit things late. I coaxed, cajoled, tried to meet him halfway, find alternative assignments. Results were few and far between; he straddled the line between a D and a F for most of the trimester. Blake’s mom, his science teacher, and swim coach were involved with the effort too. We even went down to the 11th hour- having him submit some work so he made it above a D so he could swim to compete in the state swimming meet. He barely scraped by. 

Every time we questioned him about his missing work, he dodged and swerved better than the average politician. Eventually, Blake stopped dodging and swerving and said honestly and without malice, “I didn’t do the work. Most of the time it just doesn’t interest me."

For the school where I taught (and Blake was enrolled), a private college-prep school, the general expectation was that all students would graduate and attend a 4-year college to earn their BA or BS; in fact, this was why many parents sent their children to us. Our school didn’t provide for classes or opportunities for kids whose gifts fell outside of what is considered to be “academic interests.” For a kid who liked art and liked to tinker with things, choices in school for Blake were fairly limited. Although we had a robust art department, we didn’t have industrial arts, mechanics, or consumer sciences.  

Trade schools are starting to shed their former stigma, becoming more attractive to many students, not just students like Blake. Interestingly, the strong push toward 4-year degrees has now created a deficit of folks who are skilled in vocational trades.  According to, the “workforce skews heavily toward middle-aged people and there aren’t enough young people getting into the trades to eventually replace them. This path would have been a perfect choice for Blake. 

In addition to statistics that show less debt and higher and faster job placement numbers for trade school graduates, consider the following: 

Students can do what engages them. While there are plenty of options within a 4-year setting that can cater to student interests, the opportunity for hands-on experience in a trade is not as available. If students are unhappy with “business as usual” in high school, they won’t be engaged in college either, sometimes at a huge cost. There’s a lot to be said for being able to do what you love sooner rather than later. 

Underemployment is rarely an issue. About 53% of college graduates are unemployed or working in a job that does not require a degree. This underemployment tends to take time away from the time spent building skills and experiences in the graduate’s field. In the trades, students are often apprenticed while they are still in school, so not only are they learning the skills that will directly apply to their chosen field, they are making connections in the field that can help with employment. Because the time learning the skill is shorter than that of a traditional college, trade school graduates enter the workforce sooner. 

Jobs are becoming more plentiful. According to, most of the fastest growing jobs in the U.S. won’t require a bachelor’s degree. Projections include a 96% increase for wind turbine service technicians and 47% increased need for home health aides. 

Check out this infographic that compares and contrasts trade school vs. traditional college. 

Too often, trade schools are missed or downplayed in the discussions around post-secondary options for students. This article from School Leaders Now shares ideas for how to keep trade schools in the conversation about post-secondary plans. If we are to focus more on personalized learning as a framework to meet students’ needs, we need to include encouragement and resources on helping those who are not engaged by the traditional options. Had I known better, I would have made a bigger deal about trade schools – not just to Blake, but to all of my students. Between what I thought I should be teaching and the structure of our school, Blake’s gifts should have been celebrated and his learning could have been drastically personalized so that he met the standards for content. Hopefully, the pendulum can swing back towards trade schools as truly viable options, and students like Blake can be celebrated for his gifts. 

By the way, when I last heard, Blake was working as an auto mechanic.  😀 

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