In life, labels seem to be more important than the product itself. When fashion experts compare a designer handbag to a knock-off they point out the designer’s quality, material and most importantly its high-end status. In the past, the same could be said for comparing a traditional university education to a vocational one. But today, the knock-off may be just as good. Just last week USA Today reported that public university tuition increased nearly 6 percent in 2009.
That’s more than both private universities and community colleges. Now the affordable knock-off, or vocational certificate may be worth the same as a designer handbag, or university degree.
I was one of those who thought a designer education would look better on me than a post-secondary handbag. I went to work full-time after graduating from high school and had success as an assistant casting director and later managing a company in the textile industry.
Unfortunately, the companies I had worked for were typically small and inevitably had to downsize. I came to realize that I needed additional skills in order to gain a position that would be considered name brand. At 26 years old I didn’t want to spend a lot of time at school, so I had all intentions of going to a trade school. But, I couldn’t shake the feeling that a four-year college degree would look better.
Society has a history of skepticism toward trade schools. Until the late 1990s, critics thought they were more concerned with profiting from student loans and tuition than education. Students complained that they were promised more than the schools could provide: a job. With the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998, career colleges, as they are now called, have improved their reputation. Tracking systems were put in place that monitored the progress of the schools and the students. This regulated federal funding and legitimized the student loan process. As a result, career colleges have seen a slight increase in enrollment each year since. And the economic downturn in the past 18 months has only pushed the numbers higher.
For example, enrollment at trade schools in California has increased greatly in the past two years. Community college enrollment in Los Angeles was 120,517 students in 2008 compared to 99,338 in 2006. Los Angeles Technical College went from 11,518 students to 14,405 during the same period. As people are losing their jobs, they are looking for additional training or switching fields. However, with less money in their pockets it may be more appealing to forego the expensive colleges and look toward two-year technical programs. California State University tuition this year is $4,800, with another 10 percent increase expected next year. Los Angeles Trade Technical College is $700 a year, and it takes half the time to graduate.
Career training offered at these schools range from traditional programs such as computer graphics, engineering, and construction to event planning, cosmetology and fashion design, which are not typically offered at traditional four-year colleges. These fields have entry-level positions starting with relatively appealing salaries. Graphic designers start at $35,000 a year, engineering at $60,000 a year and cosmetology at $90,000 a year. Programs for these fields are tailored to specific careers. Students only learn what they need to know saving time and money.
Now I am a senior at a four-year public university and I feel more like I am in a one-size-fits-all outfit instead of a custom-fitted suit. I will leave with a degree in journalism and be lucky to make $10 an hour at a desk job in a newsroom, with the added benefit of being $20,000 in debt with student loans. The budget cuts that have increased tuition have also downsized my class options.
I have yet to work in a newspaper setting because a series of required journalism writing classes must be taken first. Next semester when I finally make it to the newsroom, I will get four months of experience before I try and make it in the real news world. I feel like I am taking baby steps only to be forced to grow up in order to graduate on time.
In order to receive my degree in four years I have had to generalize my field and drop my intended emphasis in public relations. It’s not as though I have to graduate this year, and while another year would allow me to hone my skills, it would increase my debt and delay my getting a job.
Los Angeles Trade Tech offers programs in journalism and public relations. By now, I could have studied what I actually wanted to do and finished more than a year ago. Instead, I will graduate with an expensive accessory that may already be out of season.