Trade schools, community colleges provide affordable educational paths

Photo of Nadine Ordaz
Anthony Angel Pérez/Senior Staff
Alternative pathways to a four-year college include community college, trade school, the military or entering the workforce. For example, Berkeley City College student Nadine Ordaz chose to attend the school after leaving San Francisco State University.

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When Nadine Ordaz was in high school, they felt a general feeling amongst the student body that community college was a last resort. They enrolled in San Francisco State University right after graduating, but soon realized it wasn’t the academic community they were looking for.

Instead of moving back to their hometown in Southern California, Ordaz moved to Berkeley and enrolled in Berkeley City College, planning to transfer to UC Berkeley after two years.

“I didn’t feel like community college was kind of an option for everybody,” Ordaz said. “They made it seem like it was an option for those who couldn’t afford a four-year or couldn’t get into a four-year, it was always a negative connotation.”

Community college is just one alternative pathway for students graduating high school beside attending a four-year university. Others may include vocational schools, the military or going into the workforce, according to campus assistant professor of education Tolani Britton.

For students who want to pursue careers in trade fields such as plumbing, vocational programs are an optimal way to learn the skills needed, Britton added.

“The benefit of some of the pathways are that they tend to be more lucrative short term, so if you go into the workforce or go into vocational training that leads you into a job straight on,” Britton said. “The pathways to and from education are diverse.”

Cypress Mandela Training Center, a vocational school in Oakland, offers a free green construction training program for Bay Area residents. Students of this program can also earn up to seven credits at UC Berkeley, UC Davis or Laney College, according to their website.

The training center also offers programs in gas and electric utilities, BART track and structure operations, energy and water efficiency, EPA environmental health and safety certification and UC Berkeley occupational health and safety certification, according to the website. The careers that result from these training programs offer annual salaries from $54,000 to $120,000.

Britton noted these pathways are not mutually exclusive, and many students pursue more than one at once, such as working a full-time job while attending school. High school graduates may also choose to serve in the military to get a college education.

“Many students are doing this to contribute to their family income,” Britton said. “We have to recognize to leave high school and go to a four-year college for many families and students it is required that students take on debt.”

Many students who are academically qualified do not have the option to attend four-year universities because of the cost, Britton noted.

However, workers in these occupations often find fewer opportunities for advancement in their positions, Britton added. Disparities between students who can attend four-year colleges right away and those who cannot are connected to students’ race and economic class.

“Low-income Black and Latinx students … are more likely to be the ones who enter two-year colleges and/or work because going to four-year colleges tends to be more expensive,” Britton said. “Students of color and low-income backgrounds are more likely to take these pathways or select multiple pathways.”

High schools can help students make informed decisions by offering students “information and opportunity,” Britton added. This may include making sure prospective transfer students know that it may take more than four years to graduate, and offering dual-enrollment classes so that high school students can try out college courses before they graduate.

Ordaz noted their high school could have done more to help students recognize community college as an option. As a community college student, they noted they have been able to get academic advising to meet their long-term goals and participate in academic clubs at UC Berkeley while working towards transferring.

“I wish I had started out at community college rather than waiting a semester,” Ordaz said in an email. “The opportunities that I have been given would not have been available to me at a four year university and I would not be as successful as I currently am if I had stayed at SF State.”

Emma Taila is a schools and communities reporter. Contact them at [email protected] and follow them on Twitter at @emmataila.