An apprenticeship sounds great until it isn't

  • An apprenticeship may lead to a job more easily and cost less than college, but that shouldn't change the way parents save and plan for their child's future.
  • Funding can be unstable and vocational training doesn't work for every field.
  • It's impossible to predict your child's future, and college savings are flexible.
Stetson Freeman | The Christian Science Monitor | Getty Images
An apprentice works on a whaleboat under the supervision of a boat builder.

When President Donald Trump hosted the TV show "The Apprentice," only one lucky contestant received a job at the end of each season.

Under his recently proposed apprenticeship program, the goal is to employ 5 million Americans.

Apprenticeships hold some appeal for families anticipating the sticker shock of a college education, which is currently around $33,480 at private colleges and $24,930 at public colleges for the 2016-2017 school year, according to the College Board.

In an apprenticeship program, a company generally trains a student in one skill for a specific field. That often leads to a job right after training, sidestepping the traditional college path — and tuition expenses.

Yet experts say even though apprenticeships are hot, the trend shouldn't change the way you plan and save for your child's college education.

Here are four reasons why:

1) Apprenticeship funding is uncertain

Right now, the proposal is "all talk, no funding," said financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, vice president of strategy for college site Cappex. Unless Trump pours more money into apprenticeship programs, he said, there will be little change from the status quo.

It's also unclear how much apprenticeships might cost. "Cheaper than college" doesn't mean you won't have to save at all, he said.

"I wouldn't encourage a parent to abandon the idea of sending their child to college because 'oh the apprenticeship programs are a magic bullet, they won't cost very much,'" Kantrowitz said.

2) Vocational training doesn't work for every field

Families need to prepare students for the careers that will exist 20 years from now, not only the jobs that exist today, said Dennis Hanno, president of Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.

"A narrow, vocational focus may not be helpful in such a rapidly changing world," he said. "We know that the knowledge and broad skills that are gained from liberal arts study provide flexibility to keep learning and adapting."

Some jobs that wouldn't necessarily benefit from apprenticeships — because they currently require a college degree — are research analysts, financial advisors, cartographers, translators and interpreters, social workers and counselors, athletic trainers and biomedical engineers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

3) It's impossible to predict your kid's plans

Financial advisors typically recommend starting to save for college early — as in, as soon as your child is born. Saving less with expectations of an apprenticeship instead of college could backfire if your child shifts career paths, said certified financial planner Erin Durkin, director of financial planning at EP Wealth Advisors in Torrance, California

"I think the biggest issue would be knowing what apprenticeship program their kid would want to do, early on," she said. "Parents start to save when their kids are young, and they have no idea what their child's focus of a career is going to be."

4) College savings are flexible

Every dollar you save is a dollar less you have to borrow, said Kantrowitz. Savings also offer you more flexibility.

"You're always going to be in a better position and have more opportunities, more flexibility as to choice of type of program … if you'd saved in advance," he said.

Saving in a 529 college savings plan doesn't mean you couldn't pursue an apprenticeship or other training, either. Funds can be used for a range of qualified education expenses, including technical and trade schools, said Durkin.

If your child's chosen path means you won't use that balance or will have extra left over, you can always take that money out. (Withdrawals that aren't used for qualified educational expenses will incur federal taxes and a 10 percent penalty on earnings. You may also owe state taxes if you claimed a deduction or credit for the contributions.)