What’s the Difference between Vocational College and Community College?

Two-year colleges and universities are growing in popularity as college costs rise and student loan balances become crippling for four-year or graduate degrees. Not only are two-year institutions generally cheaper than four-year colleges but they offer useful degrees that can put students into the workforce quickly. However, students must decide if they want to attend a vocational two-year college or a community college. The answer to that question will depend, in part, on the student’s ultimate educational and career goals.

How Big is the Education Cost Problem?

According to the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center, the average full-time student has experienced an increase of 27 percent in tuition costs since the year 2000, and students pay more than three times as much for their classes today as in 1980. More than 39 million Americans now owe balances on student loan debt, including two-thirds of all seniors graduating in 2011.

However, cost is not the only problem facing those who seek a four-year degree. Another issue is the viability of many four-year degrees. Recent downturns in job markets have left thousands of graduates without jobs. As of April 2013, more than 40 percent of recent college graduates cannot find jobs, according to a recent report in the New York Daily News. Many graduates who are able to find jobs are underemployed in part-time work or are making far less than their degrees should help them to earn.

How Can Two-Year Institutions Help?

A community college or two-year vocational college can save students tens of thousands of dollars in tuition. According to the College Board, the average student at a public two-year university pays only $3,130 per year in tuition and fees while a private four-year university will cost $39,000 for a year of tuition, room and board. A student can potentially save $72,000 by going to a two-year school, even if he or she decides to transfer to a four-year institution later.

However, before becoming carried away with the thought of going to a cheap two-year school, it is important for the student to understand the potential problems that can result from taking classes without making a good educational plan.

Community College vs. Two-Year Vocational: Which is Right for Me?

The question that every student should ask before signing up for classes at any type of school is “what do I want to do with my degree?” Answering this question, and examining the pros and cons of each option, will prevent a great deal of wasted time and money.

The Benefits of Community College

Community colleges offer students many facets of traditional university life, but at a much smaller price tag. Community colleges often feature many of the same student activities as four-year schools, such as intramural sports events, and clubs. Some community colleges even offer students the chance at dorm life. As an added bonus, however, community colleges provide one thing many four-year universities lack: flexibility. Most, if not all, community colleges offer online programs for students who are working to juggle coursework with a full- or part-time job, a family, or simply a long commute.

Community college is also a great choice if a student is considering one day transferring credits to a larger institution (since credits earned at a vocational college may not transfer to a traditional four-year college). As an added bonus, many community college two-year degrees are accepted as “core curriculum” by four-year schools.

Many people assume that one of the biggest cons of community college degrees is that they are not worth as much as traditional four-year degrees. However, recent research shows that this may not be true. USA Today reports that employment has increased at a higher rate for recent grads from community college programs (an increase of 578,000 jobs in the last six months) than for those with a four-year degree (314,000 in the last six months). Experts believe this growth in mid-level career opportunities may be the result of a recovering U.S. economy.

An associate degree from a community college can be a valuable asset. Rather, one of the biggest drawbacks to community colleges is their relatively limited course schedule compared to the selection at larger universities. In addition, students who are considering a career in a specialized field, like law or medicine, will eventually need to transfer their credits to a four-year university to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Transferring credits, while possible, can be difficult if not done correctly. As such, students considering this option should work closely with an academic advisor to carefully plan their classes.


Vocational Schools

One of the obvious advantages of vocational education is that it’s relatively quick: usually students complete their studies in just one or two years instead of four. With the economy still slowly recovering from the recession, entering the work force as soon as possible is a very attractive option. Despite the current cultural focus on increasing status and going to the best schools in order to get the best jobs in order to be an impressive individual, actual job growth in these areas is fairly low. By contrast, job growth in occupations like construction, brick masonry, pipelaying, and plumbing are all expected to be among the fastest growing jobs in the coming years—and none of these jobs require a bachelors’ degree.

Vocational school also costs much less than traditional four-year college. According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, students who choose to attend a two-year vocational program could save about $67,000 on the full cost of completing a program. That’s nothing to sniff at, especially since so many recent college grads find that there’s no room in the job market for them. More and more graduates from four-year colleges find themselves unemployed and saddled with student loan debt. Many end up taking lower-earning jobs than they expected; in some cases, taking jobs they’d originally gone to college to avoid. Vocational school allows students to start out on a career path knowing that they’re learning skills and developing talents that will directly translate into an advantage in the job market.

Vocational school also helps make graduates with a particular career goal in mind more marketable to potential employers. For example, many community college students pursue an associate’s degree in Computer Science. While a degree in Computer Science is helpful for finding a job in the tech industry, the skills gained will be somewhat general, and the student may have to pursue further schooling in order to gain specific expertise to become more marketable. A student with a two-year technical school degree in computer repair, however, has very specific skills related to repairing computer hardware. If this is the career path the student wants to pursue, the technical degree is a better choice than the community college degree.

One of the downsides to vocational school is the emphasis on focus. If a student isn’t sure what career she’s interested in pursuing, vocational school may be the wrong choice. Students who are interested in exploring their options should consider community college. While vocational programs focus on a particular area, like building skills necessary for trade professions like automotive repair or carpentry, with little time spent taking elective courses, community college allows students to choose which programs they’re interested in taking. If a student is interested in computer science as a career, but isn’t sure which area, he or she can take a variety of courses related to computer science technology and still dabble in creative writing or pursue an interest in learning a foreign language.

Students can gain great benefits from attending a two-year vocational college or a community college. However, it is important for students to carefully examine the options at each type of school to determine which best meets their educational needs and goals. Most importantly, students should remember that, regardless of which decision they make, there is more than one path to success.



College Board Advocacy & Policy Center, Trends in College Pricing 2012.

New York Daily News (Reuters), Recent College Graduates Disillusioned, More Than 40% Unemployed: Poll. April 30th, 2013.

College Board Advocacy & Policy Center. Trends in Higher Education. 2012-13.

USAToday, Employment Surges for Community College Grads. October 17th, 2012.

Seattle Post Intelligencer, Advantages and Disadvantages of Studying at a Community College.

Huffington Post, High School Vocational Education On The Upswing, Coaxing Students Away From Traditional Colleges. March 18th, 2013.

National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics. October 2010.

The Economist, The Great Mismatch. September 10th, 2011.