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When College Isn’t for Your Kid, Should You Save for a Trade School?

If you’ve ever lost sleep worrying about whether or not your teen will go to college, you’re not alone; it’s just that many parents don’t talk about it. But the truth is that the same path does not work for every student. Life after high school isn’t always a four-year degree. In today’s job market, sometimes the next step is a different kind of post-secondary education, like trade or vocational school.

When evaluating what to do after high school, “Parents should ask, ‘what training will my child need to achieve their goals?’” advises Aaron Greene, founder and CEO of College Liftoff and a college planning specialist. “Sometimes that comes from a four-year degree; other times it comes from a specialized program.”

Wherever your teen is headed after high school, it’s likely to involve additional education, and it’s smart to be prepared.

Saving for Trade or Vocational Schools

Know your child.

Leanne Casolaro had seen her son Joe tinker with cars for years. “Around 10th grade, we decided that Joe would start trade school,” says Leanne. “He has ADHD, and we knew a traditional four-year college would not be the best option for him.” Joe is attending a diesel technology program through his school district in conjunction with the local community college.

Steven Coyle, director of academic relations at Universal Technical Institute (UTI), travels the country talking to parents about trade school. He advises parents to consider their child’s individual needs and goals. “UTI students are kids that like to work with their hands,” Coyle says. “They’re inquisitive. They want to make things run better, and they don’t want to sit at a desk all day.”

Save no matter what.

Paying for trade school will often be less expensive than a four-year degree, but there are still costs. Some specialized training programs can be pricey, and if a program isn’t available in your area, travel and living expenses may also factor in.

“As parents, we know that something is happening after high school—and there will be expenses,” says Tim Gorrell, executive director of the Ohio Tuition Trust Authority, which manages Ohio’s 529 Plan, CollegeAdvantage. While many parents think about 529s as savings plans for college, the funds can be applied to a variety of different career paths. “From welding school to the police academy—if the school is federally accredited, and there are associated charges for the program, you can use your 529 savings. That’s why they are there: You are saving for expenses that come after high school.”

The money from 529s can even be used for required tools and housing, as long as they are considered part of the program.

Do your homework.

“Planning for trade school is no different than planning for college—you still need to save and research your options,” says Greene.

Parents and teens often talk about visiting universities, but trade school visits are equally important. “One of the best things parents can do is take their teen to visit schools,” says Coyle. “Also visit the type of facility where you aspire to work. Ask their people what schools they attended.”

He also recommends visiting Collegescorecard.ed.gov to look at graduation rates and outcomes.

Respect their wishes.

Casolaro knew that a trade school was right for her son, but parents aren’t always on board with that route. “There are preconceived ideas of what’s best,” says Greene. “For a lot of us, our parents worked manufacturing jobs to send us to college. We think we should expect the same for our children. But a child’s learning style might not be classroom-oriented.”

As a dad and former teacher, Coyle understands where parents are coming from. “At the end of the day, parents all want the same thing: We want our kids to love what they do and make a good living doing it.”

Julie Schuler

Julie Grippo Schuler lives in Medina, Ohio with her middle school teen son and tween daughter.

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