Some students know exactly what they want to do with their professional lives, be it hairdressing, welding, or any other trade. These students want to start preparing for their vocational careers with job training, not putter around in general education classes. Like vocational schools, community colleges help students quickly achieve the certificates or degrees they need to enter their fields. Here’s how you can decide if a community college is the right option for you.


Ask yourself if you are ready to commit to a specific profession. (Only consider career or technical training if the answer is yes.)

If you are interested in a certain career or trade, ask yourself if you really are ready to dedicate yourself to it for years on end. If the answer is “no” or “I’m not sure,” do not enroll in a career-oriented program at this time. In fact, you might benefit from taking general education classes, taking a gap year to work, or trying to intern in your prospective field before deciding if the profession is for you. Vocational programs, whether they are offered at vocational schools or community colleges, focus on specific trades. If you change your mind halfway through your program and decide to do something else, it is unlikely that you will be able to transfer your credits to your new program. Changing your career 15 years down the road is one thing, but bouncing from program to program as you try to decide which field is the best fit for you is a waste of your time and money. The bottom line is this: Before pursuing career or technical training, be sure that you are invested in the field and ready to become a professional.

Figure out what credentials or training you need to practice your vocation.

If you hope to practice a certain trade, you often can’t just jump into a career without clocking a certain number of hours in an apprenticeship, passing a licensing or certification exam, or graduating from a degree or certificate program at a community college or vocational school. Each profession has its own requirements, and they may vary from state to state. Before you start working toward becoming a professional in any given trade, look into your state’s requirements for professionals in your trade (including any continuing education classes, dues, or license renewals that may be required annually) and keep them in mind as you go forward. Once you know what type of credential you need to begin your career, you can start creating a list of prospective schools.

Understand how community college can help you receive the credential or training you need.

  • If you need a license or certification: Professionals earn licenses (a legal requirement to practice certain vocations) and certifications (a recommended, but not required, way to show your mastery of a certain trade) by passing exams. In that way, students don’t actually earn either in school, but classes at a community college or vocational school may prepare them for the exams. Since you won’t need to spend two years working toward a degree, consider enrolling only in classes that are directly related to your trade and using them as a way to study for your exams. Many certification prep classes are offered online, so you can study on your own time and from the comfort of your home.
  • If you need to complete an apprenticeship: Students whose trades require a certain number of on-the-job hours will need to complete an apprenticeship under the supervision of a trained professional. While some apprenticeships include classroom training in addition to supervised work hours, others may require that you attend classes on your own time before you can be fully certified. Many community colleges (and vocational schools) can teach you the basic skills you need to supplement your apprenticeship, or, if you began school before learning that you needed to complete an apprenticeship, help you network and secure an apprenticeship as part of the program.
  • If you need a certificate: Students who complete trade-specific programs of study lasting no more than two years earn certificates in their vocations. Community colleges and vocational schools alike offer certificate programs, and you may choose between either option. Both have proven to be cost- and time-effective options when compared to traditional college, but every school will have its own course of study and tuition costs. You might decide to compare the cost of tuition and the program length at both a community college and vocational school near you to find out if community college indeed offers the best program for you. Be sure to pick an accredited school so that your certificate is recognized by industry professionals when it comes time for you to apply for jobs.
  • If you need an associate’s degree in your trade: Like a certificate, the Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree focuses on a specific field of study or vocation and shows employers that you have satisfactorily completed the educational training necessary for a certain job. It should be noted that an AAS degree is a type of associate’s degree because it takes two years of full-time study to complete (unlike a certificate), but it does not function like an Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate of Science (AS) degree. An AAS degree is often earned as a stand-alone degree by a student who wants to begin working immediately following graduation. Students will not be required to take the same general education courses needed for AA or AS degrees. Because their coursework is tailored to a specific career and not an academic field of study, students who earn an AAS will find it harder to transfer their credits should they decide to attend four-year schools later on. If you are considering an AAS degree program, you should already know what future career you would like to have and you should have no intention of returning to school for a bachelor’s degree in the near future.

Make sure your community college of choice offers a program in your intended vocation.

Each community college should have a website that lists all of its offered programs of study, so check with the college of your choice to make sure it has a program to prepare you for your intended vocation. If it doesn’t, you may need to check with other nearby community colleges or vocational schools.

Once you have found a couple of schools that offer your desired program, it’s time to compare them. The biggest concern for you may be the cost of your education and the length of the program; the longer the program and the higher the number of required courses, the more money you’ll have to spend to complete it. If you elect to attend school part-time, however, you can draw out the length of the program but cut your costs per semester, especially if you’re working while completing your requirements. You also want to compare campus environments, program requirements, teaching staff, and job placement programs. Spend some time on campus and with an admissions counselor; they’ll be able to answer any questions that you have. When you’re sure you’ve narrowed your choices down to the right school, it’s time to apply!

Page last updated: 07/2017