Armando Aguilar is one of the lucky ones.
He has a job.
The Newburgh man is a counselor at SUNY New Paltz. He also has two kids and a mortgage he’s struggling to pay.
So Aguilar is back in school. But not for academics; instead, he’s studying heating and air conditioning repair.
"Anything can happen around this time. What if I lose my job?" Aguilar says. "It’s something to fall back on."
With the economy still sluggish and local unemployment rates approaching double digits, trade schools are enjoying a popularity boost.
Boosts in enrollment
It’s easy to see what’s behind that popularity: relatively quick training and job opportunities upon graduation.
"When things get tough, trade schools get better," says Anthony Fiore, who runs Capri Cosmetology School. He says 2009 saw the highest enrollment in nearly two decades at his school, which has branches in Newburgh and Rockland County.
June Franzel, who runs the Orange-Ulster BOCES Adult and Continuing Education program, says enrollment in auto mechanics courses have doubled, while enrollment in both certified nursing assistant and medical assistant programs have increased sevenfold in the last two years.
"Oh definitely, it’s the economy," Franzel says. "A couple of years ago, we had trouble getting people in our certified nursing assistant program."
There’s plenty to like about trade schools, says Mark Kantrowitz, who runs finaid.org, an education Web site. For one thing, Kantrowitz says, they do a better job graduating both poor and minority students than traditional colleges and universities.
Paying for it
But the trade-school sword is double-edged, especially when it comes to student finances. According to Kantrowitz, the default rate for students who took out loans to attend for-profit schools — the category under which most trade schools fall — was 26 percent in 2007, compared to 12 percent for nonprofit schools. Fiore says his default rate has jumped into double figures after years in the low single digits.
Several factors could be at play, Kantrowitz says. Demographics is one. Trade school students tend to be poorer, therefore, more likely to run into financial trouble.
Another is school quality.
"Unfortunately, there’s no Consumer Reports or U.S. News and World Report study for trade schools," Kantrowitz says.
Making a choice
So his message to people taking the trade-school route: shop around.
"People need to "» look at graduation rates, look at how much debt they can take on, or whether they’d be better off spending less money elsewhere," Kantrowitz says.
Armando Aguilar took an HVAC course at Orange-Ulster BOCES but was dissatisfied with it. Now he’s looking into taking additional courses at Lincoln Technical Institute, which has a campus in Mahwah, N.J., about 45 minutes from his home.
Aguilar is dipping into his life savings for the schoolwork. But he believes it will be worth it.
"If I get a job, it’s good money," he says.