Post-secondary Catholic trade schools are emerging nationwide in response to growing demand for alternative educational paths. The institutions all seek to integrate intellectual life with the life of manual labor without forcing students to assume tremendous debt.
A recent Pew Research study showed more young Americans, particularly young men, are declining the traditional four-year college route. Another study found that affordability was a driving factor in both men’s and women’s decisions not to attend or drop out of four-year college.
Hoping to provide a quality Catholic education, the training necessary for career success, as well as authentic community at an affordable rate, three recently-founded Catholic schools offer new options for high school graduates.
The Catholic trade school vision is beginning to gain momentum in other places across the country, with a fourth set to open in 2025 and viability studies being launched in dioceses such as Springfield, IL.
Located in Orange County, CA, this two-year school for men welcomed its inaugural class of five students last September.
Built upon the solid foundations of work, study, and friendship, Santiago Trade School aims to form young men into excellent Christian tradesmen. The school offers training in several different trades including general construction, mechanical technology, and agricultural management.
In addition to “gaining practical jobsite wisdom,” students grow in “spiritual wisdom that unites men to Christ” in a communal context. The school day begins with prayer at 6:30 a.m. in the chapel, followed by breakfast and work. Mass and lunch punctuate the middle of the day with a period of study after. Dinner, prayer, and recreation round out the day, with 11:00 p.m. designated as lights-out time.
Comparable to many public colleges, tuition is $28,000 per year. What sets Santiago Trade School apart, however, is its work-study program, which allows students to graduate with little to no debt.
In an interview with Catholic News Agency (CNA), Mark McElrath, executive director of Santiago Retreat Center, the legal entity under which Santiago Trade School operates, commented:
So at the end of two years, you’ll know how to build a house, why we build a house, how to manage what goes on in the house. You should have little to no debt, and you should be extremely employable.
This coed Catholic institution located in Steubenville, OH, is set to open in 2024. Although its founder notes that it is technically not a “trade school,” the school will teach the trades and boasts a “unique cost structure.”
Jacob Imam, the school’s founder and vice president of finance, told CNA:
One of the great things about the trades is that you get paid to train in them. So, that offsets the insidious financial state that many students find themselves being up to their eyeballs in debt rather than graduating financially net positive, which is our hope for all of our students.
According to its mission statement, the College aims to “produce faithful Christians who are virtuous citizens, intellectually formed, and capable of building up the Church in their communities.” To this end, it will offer a six-year program in which students can earn a bachelor’s degree in Catholic studies and complete an apprenticeship in their chosen trade.
For the first three years of the program, students will live in Steubenville as they discern their career path and begin their liberal arts studies. Students may choose between carpentry, HVAC, plumbing, and electrical.
The cost is $15,000 per year.
For their fourth and fifth years, students will return to their home state to start accruing “On-the-Job-Training” hours while continuing their studies with the College online. The cost is reduced to $5,000 per year to reflect the reduced number of in-class hours.
According to CNA, the college hopes to accept 30 students for its first semester this fall.
Located in Grand Rapids, MI, the Harmel Academy of the Trades is currently in its fourth year of operation.
Like Santiago Trade School, Harmel Academy is male-only. Through the humanities curriculum and on-campus residence program, men will “learn to blend study with work and work with prayer, thus helping them ground their work in the call to holiness, to justice, and to the common good.”
The first year is a gap year called the Foundations of Skilled Stewardship (FSS), which entails the exploration of a variety of different trades and is intended to help the students discern their career path.
Those who opt to stay at Harmel after the FSS year join the two-year Machine and Systems Technology (MST) program which offers students “instruction grounded in solid manufacturing theory and deep, practical experience, our students focus on critical thinking through team-oriented, real-world problem solving.”
In addition to taking advantage of scholarship opportunities, students can also work to pay for their tuition and graduate without excessive debt.
According to CNA, two cohorts with a combined total of 29 students have already graduated.
David Michael Phelps, the school’s president, shared with CNA:
What we find with our employers is usually almost always a phone call that goes something like this: ‘Hey, this guy you sent over here is excellent. Can I have five more of them?’
Phelps noted that their graduates are men of skill and character, but ultimately exhibit excellence because they “understand themselves as working for Our Lord first.”
Coming in 2025: Kateri College
Located in Gallup, NM, Kateri College aims to open in Fall 2025.
The coed institution “will unite the strengths of a liberal arts education with a vocational trade in order to graduate men and women who know their mission in life, who are trained to accomplish it, and who are capable of contributing to their local community and to the nation and Church at large.”
John Freeh, one of the college’s co-founders, told CNA that to ensure affordability, the school plans to partner with corporations and benefactors to reduce the burden of tuition on its students.
For its first semester, Kateri College hopes to have 30-40 men and women in attendance. Freeh noted that they are also conducting outreach to New Mexico’s sizable Native American population for prospective students.
“It’s become clear that this [Catholic trade school] idea is germinating elsewhere. So we think it’s a movement of the Holy Spirit,” Freeh said.