College & Workforce Readiness

Which Trade Schools Pay Off for Students? A New Ranking Offers Ideas

By Catherine Gewertz — August 07, 2017 2 min read
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You know them all too well: the annual release of the college rankings. They are much anticipated, revered and reviled, and yes, influential. Now a more-often-overlooked sector of the postsecondary world is coming in for some scrutiny of its own: two-year trade schools.

You might have missed it, but earlier this summer Forbes, for the first time, quietly issued its first annual ranking of trade schools. The list of 30 is a much smaller-scale undertaking than the magazine’s annual college rankings, which rate 600-plus colleges and universities. Princeton Review, U.S. News & World Report, and many others offer their own takes on baccalaureate programs.

The U.S. News report includes only a handful of two-year trade programs. Smaller outfits like Niche, based in Pennsylvania, [ALSO?-DV]evaluate trade schools.

But Forbes’ list marks the first time one of the big publications that rates colleges has launched a specific, discrete analysis of trade schools. And it connects to the gestalt of the moment: the rising emphasis among educators and policymakers on making sure students are career-ready.

With college costs—and student debt—soaring, fresh rounds of discussion are centering around the good-paying job options that can come with programs that confer a range of credentials and certifications short of a bachelor’s degree. (One recent example: a study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce detailing the jobs for people without four-year degrees.)

Forbes’ methodology puts a premium on the earnings that graduates of these programs can anticipate. Earnings account for 50 percent of the weight of a trade school’s evaluation, and affordability accounts for 30 percent. Program quality, measured by a program’s retention rate, its three-year completion numbers and student-faculty ratio, account for 20 percent of a trade school’s score.

The top-ranked programs come with some pretty attractive earnings. Look at nursing, for instance, a field that’s well known as one with high demand for workers. Forbes’ top-ranked trade school is a nursing school, and its graduates are averaging more than $75,000 annually six years after they complete the program, more than double the average for all college graduates, according to Forbes.

Trade schools in the health professions dominate the magazine’s list of top trade schools, occupying all 10 top spots (and many of the others farther down the rankings list). But repair programs in various trades, along with drafting and aeronautics programs, offer a range of options with good pay and without the time and debt of a bachelor’s degree.

In general, there’s still a widely recognized “wage premium” for the bachelor’s degree; those who get them earn more over a lifetime of work than those who earn lesser degrees.

But experts also have pointed out that wages in some fields that don’t require bachelor’s degrees can exceed the earnings of jobs that students had to study for four years or more to get. With quicker routes to good pay on people’s minds, trade schools might be on their way to a higher profile.

Photo: Getty Images

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.