Getting technical: how to beat the college money game

By Lisa Aberle

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Sept. 16 2013 1:35 p.m. MDT

Dan Neuman, instructor at Gateway Technical college, right, speaks with students at the grand opening ceremony of the newest workforce training facility, the SC Johnson integrated Manufacturing and Engineering Technology center(iMET) at Gateway Technical college in Sturtevant, Wis. in this Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013.

Jeffrey Phelps, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

Editor's note: This article originally ran on the personal finance blog Get Rich Slowly. It has been reprinted here with permission.

In 2000, I graduated from my first round of post-secondary education and landed a job. My first annual salary was about 13 times more than my entire education had cost me. It wasn’t that my job paid so well, but that my education had been so inexpensive.

Now that my husband and I are parents, we have some decisions to make regarding our children’s education. We, of course, want to find the best value possible…you know, an inexpensive but good education. With the average student holding over $26,000 in student loans, though, do “inexpensive” and “education” even belong in the same sentence?

I keep hearing that it’s a different environment now than it was when I got my first job (and it is). But is it so different that an expensive education at a four-year institution is the only option?

Vocational/technical schools

Although I later attended traditional colleges, my first post-secondary education experience that I referenced was considered a vocational school. It was in the basement, and more than once, we came to school to find water dripping from the ceiling. The furniture was from the 1970s, the technology from the 1980s, and the course content was from the 1990s (which was good, since it was the 1990s). I think the marketing budget was less than $200. In fact, the only way I knew about it was because a friend had also attended a couple of years before I did. High school guidance counselors received packets of information, but rarely directed students to the school.

What I’m trying to say is that it wasn’t flashy. People attended there because they had a goal, not because it was impressive. While there were advantages and disadvantages to this type of education, one of my favorite things was that it was so focused. Before I started the program, I knew who my prospective employers were, I knew what I could expect for my starting salary, and I knew exactly how long it would take me to complete the program and the classes I would take.

The main disadvantage (if you could call it that) was that it was not a well-rounded education. Every single thing I learned was directly related to my major. As an adjunct professor, I love education, and I have discussed and read articles on the benefits of a liberal arts education – which was not what I had received. And opinions differ. For instance, another professor dropped by my office the other day. “I can’t believe the students in your program don’t have to take Composition 102. How can they get an Associate’s degree? Crazy!”

Just FYI, the trend of many of the vocational/technical schools and programs (including mine, which is radiologic technology) is to require degrees and move to traditional college campuses. Now, other non-major classes are included in the curriculum. This change has had financial implications as well. Since my program’s move to a community college five years ago, the students’ tuition has tripled. They have access to a beautiful campus and computer labs, which is amazing compared with the building I started in. While I can appreciate both institutions, I will always have fond memories of the smelly carpet and orange vinyl chairs of those two years of my education.

Even though I have experience in and see the value of different types of educational institutions, I think the certificate occupations offered by trade or vocational schools are an amazing value.

Certifiably (probably) inexpensive

If spending less than $10,000 on education sounds good to you, the first step is to find a certificate program that fits you. According to a report published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost half of certificate programs are in the health professions. But certificate programs can also be found in fields such as engineering, plumbing, computers, welders, machinists, cosmetologists, and firefighters.

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