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Career training programs: What are they and how do they work?

Career • June 9, 2020 • Rob Zodda


What you’ll learn

  • What is a career training program
  • How a career training program works
  • How to pay for a career training program


College can be a great pathway to a fulfilling and lucrative career—but it’s not your only option. If you’re not sure college is for you, that’s okay! There are other possibilities out there. One of the most popular non-college routes for high school graduates is a career training program.

What’s a career training program?

Career training is just what it sounds like. It’s schooling that prepares you for a job in a specific field. It can include professional training or a trade certificate course at a non degree-granting school.

In fact, a significant portion of high school students enroll in career training after graduation. According to Higher Ambitions: How America Plans for Post-secondary Education, a study by Sallie Mae® and Ipsos, 12% of student said they’re planning to enroll in a career training program (a technical or vocational program, or an intensive training boot camp) after high school.

Here are just a few examples of careers you can find programs for:

  • Automotive mechanic
  • Computer programming
  • Culinary arts
  • Cybersecurity
  • Dental assistant
  • Electrician
  • EMT certification
  • HVAC
  • Medical assistant
  • Personal fitness
  • Pharmacy technician
  • Plumbing
  • Veterinary assistant

How much of a commitment is a career training program?

Career training programs can be a great option because they generally take less time to complete than a traditional 2- or 4-year degree. Some take as little as six months. In some cases, you may earn an initial certificate, followed by on-the-job training through an apprenticeship for a year or more.

Enrolling in a career training program can allow you to try out a career and see if it’s the right fit for you long term. Once you start earning money, you could also work and pursue a 2- or 4-year degree part time, if you wanted—and many students do. Higher Ambitions shows that 44% of students planning for career training expect to eventually earn a traditional degree (11% an Associate’s degree, 16% a Bachelor’s degree, and 12% a Master’s degree or beyond).

How do I pay for a career training program?

One major advantage of career training programs is that they’re generally less expensive than a traditional 4-year degree. Of course, that doesn’t mean we all have the money to pay for them out of pocket. The truth is, only about half of families who say their student plans to pursue higher education actually have money saved for it.

When planning to pay for a career training program, try this 1-2-3 approach.

  1. Start with money you won’t have to pay back

    Supplement your savings and income by applying for scholarships and grants—that’s money you won’t have to pay back. Do some research about scholarship opportunities for career training students (they’re out there!) Here are just a couple resources to get you started:

  2. Next, apply for federal financial aid.

    To be eligible for financial aid, you need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Some federal financial aid is offered on a first-come, first-served basis. So don’t wait! Students can fill out the FAFSA as early as October 1 for the following academic year.

  3. Consider a private student loan.

    If you still have a financial gap to fill after using your savings and income, and exploring scholarships and federal financial aid, then you might consider a private student loan. Private student loans are offered by banks and credit unions—and some offer specific private student loans for career training students.

    Private student loans are credit based, so applying with a cosigner (it can be a parent or another creditworthy adult) will probably improve your chances of being approved.

    Before borrowing any student loan, make sure you know when you’re required to start making payments, how much your monthly payment will be, and how long it will take you to repay the loan. And if you don’t understand something, now’s the time to ask.

Choose what works for you

Whether you’re considering career training, college, or something else—it’s okay if you’re not 100% sure right now! Everyone’s different, and what’s right for someone else might not work for you. When you’re ready, set yourself up for success by doing some research and making a plan for how you’ll pay for your higher education, before you begin.


Rob Zodda is a senior copywriter at Sallie Mae. When he’s not sharing info that helps consumers achieve their goals, he’s road tripping around New England or relaxing with an actual, physical book.


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