Why Many Students Are Choosing Trade Programs Over College


It’s almost 4 p.m at the Nashville branch of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology, or TCAT, and the students in the auto collision repair night class are just starting their school day.

One is sanding the seal off the bed of his 1989 Ford F-350. Another is patiently hammering out a banged-up fender. A third, Cheven Jones, 26, is taking a break from working on his 2003 Lexus IS 300 to chat with some classmates.

While almost every sector of higher education is seeing fewer students registering for classes, many trade programs are booming. Mr. Jones and his classmates, seeking certificates and other short-term credentials, not associate degrees, are part of that upswing.

Mechanic and repair trade programs saw an enrollment increase of 11.5% from spring 2021 to 2022, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Enrollment in construction trades courses increased 19.3%, and culinary program enrollment increased 12.7%. Some trade programs are offered at community colleges, but in the same time span, overall enrollment at public two-year colleges declined 7.8%, and enrollment at public four-year institutions dropped by 3.4%, according to NSC.

Many young people who are choosing a trade program over a traditional four-year degree say that they are doing so because it’s much more affordable, and they see a more obvious path to a job.

“These kids are looking for relevance. They want to be able to connect what they’re learning with what happens next,” says Jean Eddy, president of American Student Assistance, a nonprofit focused on career readiness. (ASA is one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.) “I think many, many families and certainly the majority of young people today are questioning the return on investment for higher education.”

In Tennessee, the state’s overall community college enrollment took a hit during the pandemic, despite a 2015 state program that made community college tuition free. But at TCAT, a network of 24 colleges across the state that offers training for 70 occupations, many trade programs have continued to grow. At TCAT Nashville, several programs have waiting lists, and the college has been adding night classes to meet demand, says Nathan Garrett, president of the college.

TCAT focuses on training students for jobs that are in demand in the region, which appeals to many students in normal times, but Mr. Garrett says the pandemic may have underscored the need for workforce relevance.

“When we look at ‘essential workers,’ a lot of those trades never saw a slowdown,” he says. “They still hired, they still have the need.” Automotive trades are always in demand, he adds.

Even so, Mr. Jones’s pursuit of a degree at TCAT Nashville would perhaps be a surprise to his high school self. “I didn’t necessarily know what I wanted to do,” he says, “and my biggest fear was to go to college, put in all that time and effort and then not use my degree.”

So, at 18, he went to work in warehouses, spending long days loading and unloading heavy boxes from tractor-trailers. But after just a few years, he realized he needed a job that would make him happier, hurt him less, and pay him more. Trade school for a career fixing cars, he decided, seemed like the best route.

Nineteen-year-old Robert Nivyayo’s priorities became clear a bit earlier in his education, when he realized he didn’t like high school. He said he spent most of his free time watching YouTube videos about fixing up cars before he was even licensed to drive.

Training in auto collision repair made sense for him, he says, because he could earn a credential while doing what he enjoyed, and without spending much time in the traditional classroom. He’s looking forward to the anticipated payoff, when he gets a job in an auto shop. He can expect to make roughly $40,000 to $60,000 a year, depending on the shop, his instructor says.

“Every new day, I just get more motivated,” Mr. Nivyayo says.

Just a few doors down, Abbey Carlson is in the welding studio, wearing jeans with holes burnt through them and a cap to protect her hair. She’s the only woman in the nighttime welding class.

Ms. Carlson, now 24, had initially intended to attend a four-year college, but her plans were derailed by an addiction to alcohol. After dedicating herself to recovery, she decided to pursue a career in the trades.

After researching her options, she concluded that welding would be the safest path to take as a young woman while also offering her the highest eventual earning potential, she says. So far, she’s enjoying her time at TCAT Nashville.

“Finally, I feel like I’m going to accomplish something in life,” she says.

Laura Monks, president of the Shelbyville branch of TCAT, says one of the reasons TCAT appeals to students is the school’s “co-op” program, which gives students who are nearing graduation the chance to work in their desired field a few days a week while also getting credit toward their diploma.

Brayden Johnson, 20, who is in his fifth trimester studying industrial maintenance automation, has had the chance to work as an electrical maintenance technician in a local factory that makes tubes for toothpaste. He’s working the night shift, which comes with a slight pay bump, and is earning about $26 per hour.

He hopes to stay in the job after he finishes at TCAT this spring, he says.

Mr. Garrett of TCAT Nashville, which also runs a co-op program, says students are drawn to the hands-on design of the courses and the general philosophy that “You need to get your hands on the equipment, you need to start building stuff, breaking stuff, and then learn how to fix that stuff.”

The opportunity to get real work experience before they graduate is an extra perk. The employer reports back to the student’s instructor so they know where the student is excelling and where they are struggling and can work on those weaknesses in class, Mr. Garrett says.

Ms. Eddy of ASA says the increased interest in the trades doesn’t necessarily mean these students won’t later go on to earn bachelor’s degrees, but that “they are excited, and they’re more interested in getting into something where they can feel as though they are applying their skills and their talents to something that they can be good at.”

For Mr. Jones, the TCAT Nashville student, the game plan is to transform his car by the time he graduates, and have fun while doing it.

“It’s school, and I take it seriously. But you know, you come here, and it just feels more like you’re at a shop hanging out with your homies all day,” he says. “It’s a good feeling.”

After he graduates, he hopes to get a job in an auto body shop.

And he says he’ll keep working until someday he can afford a red 1982 Nissan Skyline R31, RS Turbo with bronze wheels – his dream car. Even if he can’t get one in perfect condition, at least he’ll know how to fix it up.

Editor’s note: This story about trade school programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, as part of the series Saving the College Dream, a collaboration between Hechinger and Education Labs and journalists at The Associated Press, AL.com, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Seattle Times, and The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina.