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Understanding Your Higher Education Options - Part 1

College tends to be a catch-all phrase for any institution of higher learning which awards an academic degree in a specific discipline. What often gets lost in the shuffle is how many types of post-secondary education there are to choose from, designed to cater to your interests, talents and desired career.

Opportunities for gaining vocational skills beyond the typical 4-year undergraduate degree abound. Not only do these alternative educational options offer diverse routes to a satisfying career, but they can also significantly shorten the amount of time you spend in school—and save you a ton of money. Plus, these avenues may give you access to career paths that a standard university or college can’t.

In Part 1 of this series, we’ll look at a few of the options available in the U.S., including universities, vocational or trade schools, community colleges and military schools.

1. UniversityAn institution of higher learning that offers more than one college or branch of undergraduate and graduate degrees, as well as research opportunities.

Universities can be state-funded or privately funded, which impacts admission requirements as well as cost. They can also vary based on special interests, hosting students of a specific faith, gender, or other set factors.

There are thousands of universities throughout the United States, offering every type of program imaginable. They award a variety of specialized degrees, including engineering, liberal arts, medicine, technology, law, business, teaching, agriculture and nursing.

However, this type of institution is typically more focused on instructing students in order to meet strict requirements for an academic degree, rather than experiential learning. The result--a broader-based education, more general education, and less career-specific or skills-based training.

In addition, university faculty must divide their time among undergraduate student instruction, generating research, and awarding advanced degrees up to the doctoral (PHD) level. This can impact class sizes and the amount of individualized attention students can expect.

2. Vocational or Trade SchoolFocuses on specialized, skills-based training for a specific career.

One perk of trade schools is that they are much smaller that universities. Because some programs take a matter of months to complete, they offer the opportunity for students to quickly gain specialized knowledge and skills to start work immediately.

These schools offer training in a wide variety of in-demand trades, including:

  • Welding
  • Cosmetology
  • Carpentry
  • Interior Design
  • Paralegal Studies
  • Culinary Arts
  • Film Making
  • Television or Radio broadcasting
  • Radiology Technology
  • Nursing
  • Automotive Mechanics
  • Graphic or Web Design
  • Information Technology

… and many more. Vocational programs typically take one to four years to complete (though as mentioned, they can take even less). Accredited programs culminate in a diploma or certificate that immediately certifies you for work in that skilled profession.

3. Community College or Junior College—Offers two-year associate’s degrees as well as certificates and diplomas for specific vocations.

Community colleges offer students a solid alternative to the typical university experience. For those desiring a four-year degree or beyond, this option allows students to complete their first two years at a reduced cost before transferring to an undergraduate program. The benefits are two-fold—not only do graduates save a substantial amount in tuition and fees, but they can gain the necessary credentials and skills to help pay for their bachelor’s degree.

For students who don’t need a bachelor’s degree for their particular line of work, community or junior college can equip them with the hard and soft skills necessary for immediate employment.

Unlike a vocational or trade school, community colleges offer a broader base of education, requiring courses outside of your specific field of interest. This can be a benefit if you are uncertain of what career you would like to pursue, but may be a hinderance if your focus is to complete school as quickly as possible.

4. Military School—Colleges which provide a traditional college education, in addition to extensive military training in a chosen branch of the armed forces.

Depending on the type of academy, attendees can pursue a degree in select areas such as engineering, technology, military science, or business, while also gaining the experience for a military career.

There are three types of military schools: service academies, junior military colleges, and senior military colleges. Each offer academic degrees and a pathway to a career in the military, with varying benefits.

Service Academies offer students the ability to gain a bachelor’s degree free of charge, in exchange for an eight-year service requirement in their chosen branch.

Junior Military Colleges offer associate’s degrees in an immersive military training environment.

Senior Military Colleges provide graduates with the opportunity to gain a bachelor’s degree in addition to immersive ROTC training.

The latter two options do not provide the free tuition opportunity of the Service Academy, but also don’t require service after graduation. However, with the elite training you'll receive, you should graduate prepared to serve as an officer in your branch of choice if desired.

As you can see, your post-secondary options are abundant, and this is only the beginning. In Part 2 of our series , we discuss several more educational paths you may or may not have considered, so you can be sure to make the most informed decision for your future career.

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