Money Smarts Blog

Higher Education: Choosing Your Path

Feb 4, 2020 || Allison Anderson

Graduate with thumbs up

When it comes to higher education, we tell our members there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Some people excel by learning in a classroom setting, while others learn best by “doing.” Enter the increasingly common debate: college vs. trade school.

So, which option is right for you?


The college experience is best if you’ve chosen to pursue a career that requires a bachelor’s or other advanced degree. After all, the world needs people like doctors, engineers and IT professionals. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree averages a starting salary of $50,944. However, you’re likely to accumulate more debt over the course of your education when you choose a four-year college.

With the rising costs of a college education, it’s never too late to start saving. Every penny helps, from a dedicated savings account and scholarships, to grants and loans.

And don’t overlook “free” money, like an IHMVCU Cash for Class Scholarship. Each year, $30,000 is awarded to local undergraduate, graduate and vocational students who stand out in their communities.

Community College

At a fraction of the cost of a traditional four-year college, community college is a solid option if you’re not sure what you want to do after high school graduation. With many community colleges offering transfer agreements, you have the opportunity to confidently gauge your interest in a typical classroom environment while earning an associate’s degree (think vet tech, physical or occupational therapy assistant or legal assistant) or credits toward a potential bachelor’s degree. And, like your four-year university counterparts, enrolling in community colleges also makes you eligible for financial aid.

Trade School

A trade, technical or vocational school develops skills related to specific jobs rather than providing a general education. Think plumbers, electricians or dental hygienists. Apprenticeship programs in the skilled trades pay you to learn, with the added perk of graduating with little to no student debt. These programs often (but not always) take less time to complete than a traditional bachelor’s degree, emphasize hands-on training, and exist for careers across a variety of industries.

Whether you’re graduating high school soon or know of someone who is, consider all the options before making a decision. The more you educate yourself on the advantages of each path into higher education, the more confident you’ll be in making the right choice for your future.

Questions to Ask When Planning Your Education

What kind of career do I want? First things first: Ask yourself what your interests are, and see if they translate well to the many career options available. The Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the U.S. Department of Labor is a great resource that covers details on hundreds of careers — including education level, median pay and job outlook. Another option is the CollegeBoard’s Career Finder that matches careers and majors with what you like to do.

How much time do I want to spend in school? Most colleges require two to four years of career-specific and general education courses before you earn your associate’s, bachelor’s or other degree. Many trade schools can be finished in less than two years — although apprenticeships, which include a mix of hands-on and classroom learning, can take up to five years.

How much is tuition? According to the College Board 2019 report, the cost of a four-year public university (in-state) rings in at $21,950 each year. The Community College Review sets the average cost of public community colleges at $4,816 (in-state) and $8,581 (out-of-state) per year. The average trade school degree costs $33,000, while many apprenticeships pay you to learn.

How much will I make after graduation? This can be a tricky question, and depends on a variety of factors. Research shows that a college degree can give you higher earning potential over your lifetime — but nearly 70 percent of students take out loans to pay for their college education. On the flip side, vocational schools take less time to complete, meaning you can start your career and start making money earlier. In the long run, though, the amount of money you can make throughout your career largely depends on your field of work rather than your degree. For example, lawyers and general foremen in the construction industry can both easily pull in six figures annually although their higher education experience differs wildly. 

Close Window
Close Window

Third Party Disclaimer

By continuing you will be leaving the main IHMVCU website. Even though you may have clicked on a link that takes you to another company's site that we have partnered with, we are not responsible for the accuracy, security, or content of their website. We encourage you to view privacy and security disclosures of all websites you visit.

Continue to:

Thanks for signing up!

Subscribe to our mailing list

What's your age range?
What financial services are you interested in?
What would you like to know more about?
What are you saving for?
Are you an IHMVCU member?
Please also send me. . .

* Everything but your first name and email is optional