A bias towards university education is leaving thousands of young people with unnecessary debt, trades training organisations say.
The government is offering a year's free tertiary education from next year, with plans to gradually extend it to three years.
However, the Industry Training Federation said it feared that could lead to a glut of people heading to university when they might otherwise have done trade training.
Federation chief executive Josh Williams said he supported the policy but worried it could reinforce the bias that already existed in careers advice given to high school students.
"Back at school, it's still pretty much practice for university in those last two years - pick subjects, pens, pencils, classrooms, exams.
"It's not quite uni or bust, but it's definitely university or something [considered] not quite as good as university."
Nearly a third of people enrolling in trades training already had a university degree and thousands of dollars of debt along with it, he said.
"It's not wrong that they already have a law degree or whatever, but a few of them do say to us, 'I wish someone had told me about this at school - I might not have a $60,000 loan right now'."
He was keen to see degree and master's level trades training develop, and for degree-level study to be encouraged among people who had already completed an apprenticeship.
New Zealand should more closely follow a German and Scandinavian model of blurring trades training with more academically-focused education, he said.
Careers and Transition Education Association president Warwick Foy said many educators and students still had a mind-set that university was the premier pathway "and everything comes second to that".
Industry training organisations were so badly represented in careers advice given to high school students that many students he spoke to did not even know what 'ITO' stood for, he said.
"We do need to do work around balancing the opportunities that young people have, away from just university."
NCEA and the focus on attaining sufficient credits had "strangled" a broader type of education, Mr Foy said.