The Boom of Vocational Programs Across the Country—and in Tennessee


April 17, 2024 9:44AM

“America needs more plumbers, and Gen Z is answering the call.” That is how a recent Wall Street Journal article opens, and the data backs it up. With the average student loan debt hovering around $40,000, Gen Z is questioning the return on investment for a college degree. Because of the high debt and long-term commitments coupled with many employers dropping the requirement of a four-year degree, many new workers are looking towards alternative higher education options, especially in-demand fields that meet some of the most pressing needs of American industry.

Community college and university enrollment has fallen across the country, yet vocationally focused programs like construction, HVAC, and vehicle maintenance have seen a large uptick. Nationally, enrollment in these programs reached its highest levels in 2023, and while it’s a trend nationwide, it’s a boom in Tennessee. With data from the state showing public community colleges and universities have a downward trend of student enrollment, Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCAT) have gone the opposite direction, witnessing a 27 percent increase in student headcount in the past five years.

This increase in vocational schools can partly be attributed to the cost of traditional higher education today. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission shows the average tuition for TCAT is less than half of a public university, and 14 percent less than a public community college. With many programs only requiring eight to 12 months of classroom time and training, these inexpensive and short programs allow students to quickly enter the workforce. It’s hard not to see why so many young Tennesseans are choosing to forgo traditional university for technical school: one will give you in-demand skills in a short amount of time —with little to no debt— to begin a fulfilling career.  On the other hand, the other brings a four-year time commitment, tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and the fear the skills you learned will be out of date by the time you graduate.

In our 2022 report Higher Education and Higher Debts, we showed there were dozens of programs offered at Tennessee public community colleges and universities that saddled graduates with more debt than their earnings. For example, the median earnings four years after graduation for bachelor’s degrees at many universities in sociology, anthropology, and international studies was $19,000 to $28,000, while graduates had more than $30,000 in student loan debt. Compare that to a TCAT program, where data shows the average graduate of the industrial equipment maintenance program at TCAT Shelbyville makes nearly $66,000 four years after graduation. Many TCATs also offer health science programs, like TCAT Nashville, which offers a 12-month practical nursing program, with graduates making over $52,000. The ability to graduate debt-free with in-demand skills gives vocational students the ability to work in their field and have a high earning potential, even higher than many four-year university degrees.

Tennessee policymakers should keep note of the trends at vocational schools and see the value of these programs, not simply for earnings and little to no debt for graduates, but for the benefits to the state as a whole. Government regulations and bureaucracy should not get in the way of Tennesseans looking to gain an education in well-paying fields that need workers. With estimates showing a 315,000 shortage of trade workers in the Volunteer State, removing government barriers to vocational schools, reforming the occupational licensing requirements many of these graduates will face, and improving Career and Technical Education in K-12 to give students a head start in their careers, could provide untold benefits to Tennessee and its residents.