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Jeffrey Phelps, Associated Press
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.

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.

Just because the education is comparatively inexpensive doesn’t mean that it doesn’t provide an average income. The same report lists that the median wage for radiologic technologists is $55,120. Imagine what you could do with that salary with little or no student loans.

Once you decide on a certificate that seems like a good fit, the second step is to find an appropriate school. Watch out for for-profit career institutions. In my somewhat limited experience, they are very expensive and don’t often offer a quality education that goes with the high price. Of course there are exceptions, but usually you can easily find a more inexpensive option that still offers a quality education.

In addition, you can find programs by looking at the professional associations’ websites or accrediting agencies. For my field, you can find all accredited programs on our accreditation agency’s website. This information includes all programs’ annual costs, so you can easily compare your costs of attending one program versus another. Our programs are also now required to publish job placement rates, board exam passing rates, and program completion rates. This easily allows the prospective student to evaluate our program and compare it with others.

If that information isn’t readily available, ask these questions:

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  • How many of your graduates find full-time jobs (and how quickly) after graduation?
  • What is the expected salary in this region?
  • What is the first-time pass rate on the board exam, if there is one?
  • What is the percentage of students who graduate?
Do your research carefully and talk to other graduates or others in the field. Your choice of occupation can greatly influence your lifetime earning potential. Selecting an inexpensive school can give you a boost.

I know that, in general, higher degrees lead to more money, but I think vocational programs like this can be great inexpensive options for college.

What about you? Do you have experience with vocational or technical education? Did you find it valuable? Any cautionary tales?