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What is Post-Secondary Education?

Jessica Ellis
By
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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Post-secondary education, also called higher or tertiary education, is an optional level of schooling beyond what is required by law in most places. University learning is one of the most common examples, but community colleges, vocational schools, and trade programs also qualify. People usually choose to pursue this sort of education as a way to break into the working world with career training that can both better their chances of advancement and allow them to work in a field that actually matters to them.

Optional Nature

One of the most defining characteristics of post-secondary education is that it is optional. Different countries have different rules about school, but children in most places are required to go to classes for at least a certain amount of time. The educational system of most countries is broken down by level: nursery or elementary school is for young children, while middle school, grammar school, or junior high is for those in early adolescence. Most high school programs are known as “secondary” education. Post-secondary training, then, is what comes next. Students in many places don’t have a choice when it comes to high school, but university studies are always something that is left up to individual discretion.

Why People Pursue It

One of the biggest reasons why people choose to continue their education is as a means of improving their career prospects. Most of the highest-paid jobs require advanced degrees or specialty certificates that can only be earned through dedicated training. Sometimes, people enroll in specific courses as a way of entering a particular field, as is the case with someone who wants to go to law school or become an electrician. Others see higher education as something of a door to opportunities more generally, and take a range of courses that will enable them to be more marketable as thinkers and workers in a number of different fields.

Undergraduate Programs

Undergraduate learning typically takes place on university campuses, either in person or over the Internet. Most countries support a limited number of so-called “public” universities, which tend to be large research institutions. Students may also elect to attend smaller private schools. There is usually a cost difference, with private schools tending to be more expensive; there may also be big differences when it comes to student body size, quality of life, and campus culture. In either case, studies at either public or private universities typically last four years and culminate in either a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree.

Students who aren’t sure what sort of post-secondary education is best for them may begin at a community college, which is typically a two-year program leading to an associate’s degree. This type of degree is often applicable towards a bachelor’s, but also has value on its own. Many entry-level jobs require an associate’s degree in order to prove basic knowledge and some level of higher learning.

Trade and Vocational Schools

Students who hope to begin work in specific trade areas — car mechanics, for instance, or plumbing — typically attend vocational school in order to learn the skills needed for success. While most university programs focus on broad topics and help students think about big ideas, trade and vocational programs are typically dedicated to particular areas and tend to be much shorter as a result, often taking only a year or two to complete. Degrees are rare in these cases, but graduates often earn certificates and sometimes also local licenses.

Graduate Degrees

Many of the most prestigious career paths require quite a lot of postgraduate learning. People who want to be doctors, lawyers, or other professionals, like architects and business leaders, often need to pursue master’s or even doctoral-level work. All of these programs are a part of the larger post-secondary educational space. How long they take varies by field, but most require at least a year past the undergraduate degree — and they can take much longer in some cases.

Financial and Other Considerations

One of the biggest drawbacks to post-secondary education is its cost, followed closely by the time it takes to really commit to most programs. Some countries underwrite all or part of university expenses for qualified students, but this is not universal. Private schools often have very high rates for tuition and fees. Most will market themselves as a long-term investment, arguing that students who graduate tend to find better paying jobs, which makes high upfront costs balance out over time. In some fields this is true, but students should carefully weigh their career ambitions against the cost of getting there before becoming too heavily invested.

Many people choose to take out loans to pay for their post-secondary training. Scholarships and grants are also available for some students who cannot pay all of the costs upfront. Most loans and deferred payment plans require students to pay interest, which can often add significantly to the amount owed.

Time considerations are also important, particularly for students with families or work responsibilities. It often takes a lot of energy to stay focused on and devoted to university-level coursework. The rise of Internet classes and evening and executive programs on many campuses has helped make it easier for people to take courses on a more flexible schedule, but it is still important for students to be realistic about how much time higher education will really take.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for Practical Adult Insights. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon995888 — On Jun 06, 2016

I think this is a good website and it gave me know the details about the post-secondary education. But I have a question. I want to know the types of the schools for post-secondary education. For example, I don't know the difference between a college and a university. Maybe in China, we have different name for the school which is for training, and which is for academic goals.

By suntan12 — On Jul 04, 2010

Sunny27- that is really inspiring. It is people like your mother that really demonstrate what a desire and strong work ethic can do for you.

I agree that no one should give up on an education, but I do think that you need to look at what the education costs as opposed to the job you will obtain.

For example, going to an expensive private college and obtaining $100,000 in debt does not make much sense if you are going to be a teacher. A public university for such a career choice seems like a better investment.

By Sunny27 — On Jul 04, 2010

Great article, but I want to add one thing. The pursuit of a college or vocational degree should not be discouraged or thought of as unattainable regardless of circumstances.

It is a noble goal that if attained significantly impacts a person’s life in the most positive ways.

My mother for example, came to the U.S. from Cuba and worked two jobs, raised a family and went to school to learn a trade while not having a strong command of the English language. She graduated from her program and was able to obtain a much higher paying job and left her second job as a result.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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