You might call it a "no-frills" education. No political theory, no 18th-century literature. Just solid, hands-on training in a specific skill.

Post-Secondary vocational schools offering this type of low-cost, relatively rapid career training represent the fastest growing sector in education today, according to the National Association of Trade and Technical Schools (NATIS).

"These days there is a lot more recognition that a good job doesn't necessarily mean a college education," says NATTS president Marvin Barab, "and a college education doesn't necessarily mean a good job.

"Traditionally high-school counselors push students toward college. But there's a realization that that's not the best route for every student. There are other ways to become career-ready.

"Plus, the breakdown of sex-role barriers means that more women are seeking skilled jobs that require vocational training. People making mid-life career changes and retirees who want a new career are also enrolling."

Enrollments at trade and technical schools have been increasing at an average of 15 percent a year for the past several years, says Barah. An equal number of men and women are enrolled, a majority of students are in their late teens and most high-school grades averaging b- or better.

Vocational schools offer about 250 different occupational courses, including such diverse careers as motel management, dog grooming, dental assisting, motorcycle mechanics and interior design. The six largest vocational categories are data processing, electronics, medical services, drafting, auto maintenance and radio-TV.

Most courses require less than one year to complete, but programs range from four weeks to four years. Schools are small, with an average full-time enrollment of 213 per year and part-time enrollment of 113.

Tution averages about $1,300 -- roughly one-fourth the cost of tuition at a private university, says Barab, noting that "students are eligible for the type of scholarships and loans as students at colleges and universities."

More than 70 percent of graduates of NATTS-accredited schools are employed in their field of training, he says. (Sixty-one percent of recent bachelor's degree earners are working in a field related to their major, according to a 1972 Department of Labor study.)

NATTS recommends using these criteria for choosing a vocational school:

Licensing. Most states require licensing by the post-secondary school licensing bureau. If a school's catalogue doesn't indicate, check with your state's Department of Education.

Accreditation. Accreditation by an agency recognized by the U.S. Office of Education means the school has passed an examination of its educational quality, teaching ability and administrative integrity. Accreditation is usually listed in the school's catalogue, and it's a good idea to double-check with the accrediting agency itself.

Visit the school. Sit in on classes, talk to students and instructors. Check to see if the equipment is current with that being used in the field, and look for a laboratory or shop setup which duplicates a real work environment.

Placement Assistance. Find out if the school offers regular placement assistance, and ask about its placement record. Ask to talk with some graduates who are working and ask employers if they are hiring graduates from that school.

Cost. Calculate the total cost of tuition, supplies and fees. Find out about scholarships and loans available and ask about the school's refund policy.