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Tips for Choosing a Trade School

Whether you are taking your first educational steps after high school, exploring changing careers or investigating programs to enhance your current skills, trade school could be a valuable resource. Typically, trade schools offer diploma, certificate or associate degree programs in diverse fields such as auto repair, culinary arts, heating and air conditioning (HVAC), auto repair, dental assisting, plumbing and medical assisting.

Trade school programs vary widely throughout the U.S., but the National Center for Education Statistics lists the following as example trade schools with in-state tuition and fees totaling $5,000 or less in 2011-12 and enrollment of less than 100 students:

  • Acadiana Technical College, Lafayette, La.
  • Albany Technical College, Albany, Ga.
  • Amarillo College, Amarillo, Texas
  • Atlanta Technical College, Atlanta
  • Bridgerland Applied Technology College, Logan, Utah
  • Georgia Northwestern Technical College, Rome, Ga.
  • Lee College, Baytown, Texas
  • Middle Georgia Technical College, Warner Robins, Ga.
  • Pinellas Technical Education Center, St. Petersburg, Fla.
  • Pulaski Technical College, North Little Rock, Ark.
  • Savannah Technical College, Savannah, Ga.
  • Southeast Community College, Lincoln, Neb.
  • Tennessee Technology Center at Knoxville, Knoxville, Tenn.
  • Tennessee Technology Center at Memphis, Memphis, Tenn.
  • Tennessee Technology Center at Nashville,  Nashville

There are many things to consider before you decide on a school. But it can be helpful to understand the following factors when reviewing your options:

Nine factors to consider when choosing a trade school

1.       Accreditation: After narrowing your choices to a few trade schools, find out which are accredited by a nationally recognized agency. Accreditation means the school has met certain quality standards that have been outlined by that accrediting entity. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies, and high school guidance counselors may also provide more information on the accreditation process and on which vocational schools in your area are accredited.

2.       Licensing: Many states require that trade schools obtain licensure or certification to offer courses and programs. The Directory of Higher Education Officials maintains a list of state licensing agencies.

3.       Transferring: If you plan on pursuing further education following completion of a program at a trade school, find out whether the school's courses are transferable for credit to the college or university you are considering.

4.       Campus visits: Be sure to visit the school in advance. The administration may be open to allowing you to sit in on a class and talk to instructors or current students. They may also be willing to provide a list of companies that have hired recent graduates from the school.

5.       Background check: Before enrolling in a trade school, consult the Attorney General's Office and the Better Business Bureau in the state where you live, and where the school is located, to check whether any complaints have been filed against the school.

6.       Financial aid: Some trade schools may offer loan programs, but you should be sure to investigate the repayment terms and interest rates before making a commitment. The Department of Education also offers several student financial aid programs that can come in the form of loans, work-study programs and grants. Before agreeing to one, however, be sure that you can meet your repayment obligations. Missed payments could lead to a negative mark on your credit and potential problems in obtaining other loans down the road.

7.       Safety: It’s likely you will spend a lot of time at the school you choose, so it is important that you feel safe, secure and comfortable at the institution. You can contact the Department of Education’s Office of Post-secondary Education, or OPE, for information regarding the number and type of criminal offenses reported by the school. At its OPE Campus Security Statistics website, crime-related data for the past three years is listed for some schools.

8.       Documentation: Get everything in writing. Make sure you understand any admissions paperwork you are required to sign. Take your time reviewing documents and ask if a grace period is available should you change your mind about attending the school.

9.       Compare: You would not likely purchase a car or an expensive piece of electronic equipment without shopping around for the best offer. Similarly, choosing the right trade school involves doing research and asking pertinent questions. The following questions may be helpful in narrowing your trade school choices:

Other questions to ask about a prospective trade school

  • Is this program cost-effective for you?
  • Do the fees include costs for books, supplies, equipment, parking and so on?
  • How long does the program take to complete?
  • Which schools have updated their equipment most recently?
  • What are the success rates of graduates? How many find employment within six months of graduation?
  • What are the drop-out rates?
  • What is the average starting salary for recent graduates?
  • Does the school offer job placement assistance after graduation? If so, how long do they continue to offer assistance?

After considering these tips and questions, you may feel better-equipped to find a trade school that meets your expectations.  Careful research can be a great first step in seeking the best trade schools in the U.S.