Trade School vs College – How to Decide?

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Table of Contents:

  1. Understanding Trade School
  2. Understanding College
  3. What is the difference between trade school and college?
  4. How do I decide whether trade school vs college is right for me?

When it comes to furthering your education and boosting your earning potential, one of the most important questions you should ask yourself is, should I attend trade school vs. college?

We’ve got answers to the most common questions, as well as everything you need to know about trade schools vs. traditional colleges, to help you make this major life decision.


What is a trade school?

A trade school – also known as a vocational school, career school or technical school – teaches you the skills necessary to succeed in one specific trade or occupation.

Trade schools take a streamlined approach to education, so you will not take any general education courses. Instead, you will dive right in and move through the specific training required for your field.

Because these programs are so highly focused, they are much shorter. You can complete a trade school program in two years or less (some take just a few months!). They also cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars less than traditional college.

Types of trade schools

Some trade schools offer a dozen or more programs that all cover very different subjects, from dental hygiene to mechanics to criminal justice.

Other trade schools are more specialized and only offer a couple of programs that are closely related. For example, there are trade schools that only offer programs related to health and medicine and other trade schools that only offer programs for HVAC/R.

There are both brick and mortar and online trade schools to consider.

Earning potential with a trade

Some people think that trade industries don’t pay well, but that couldn’t be further from the truth!

Check out the excellent salaries you could earn in these popular, in-demand trades:

Dental Hygienist $76,220
Web Developer $73,760
  Diagnostic Medical Sonographer, Cardiovascular Technician $68,750
Line Installer and Repairer $65,700
Aircraft Mechanic $64,310
Electrical or Electronics Engineering Technician $62,260
Drafter $56,830
Food Service Manager $55,320
Plumber, Pipefitter and Steamfitter $55,160
Computer Support Specialist $54,760
Paralegal or Legal Assistant 12 $51,740
Private Detective or Investigator $50,510
Heating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installer 13 $48,730
Automotive Service Technicians / Mechanic $42,090
Medical Transcriptionist $33,380

*based off 2019 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What are the advantages / disadvantages to trade schools?

Trade school has a lot to offer. Here are some of the advantages to students:

  • Faster completion times. Because most trade school programs can be completed in a few months to two years, you can enter the workforce quickly!
  • No general education courses. Your education will focus only on the skills necessary for your career, with few or no “extras.”
  • Smaller classes. There will be fewer students in each class, which means that instructors can provide more hands-on-learning opportunities and be more accessible if/when you need help.
  • Lower cost. The exact cost of a trade school program will vary depending on the program, institution and location, but it will most certainly be thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars less than attending a traditional college program.
  • Specialized training. Your education will involve hands-on training specific to your field, and will likely take place in a setting similar to your future workplace. You should need very little additional, on-the-job training.

The primary disadvantage to trade schools is the lack of versatility.

Because trade school programs are so highly specialized from start to finish, once you begin you are committed to that path and there is little room for exploring alternatives or changing your mind later on. You really need to be sure of your career path before you commit to a trade school.

Are trades in demand?

Yes! Trade industries are in very high demand.

With many jobs in the U.S. being outsourced overseas, those who work in a trade often have a greater level of job security than college graduates from a traditional degree program. Domestic employers are often looking for applicants who have real-world experience and high-precision skills in the field, rather than just academic credentials.

According to the BLS, there is a positive job outlook in nearly all skilled trades. For example, Diagnostic Sonographers and Plumbers are expected to see a 17% and 4% growth (respectively) from 2019 to 2029, while those working in HVAC and Web Development will see a 4% and 8% growth, repsectively. These jobs are in high demand, adding thousands of new jobs each year.

Is trade school a dead-end?

For students who are very sure about their career goals, trade schools are not a dead end.

Trade schools allow you to complete your education quickly so that you can get into the workforce right away. Plus, they can save you thousands or tens of thousands of dollars attending trade schools vs college, meaning you won’t have to spend years paying off substantial debt.

If you have a strong desire to learn the ins and outs of a specific trade, and you see yourself in the field long-term, this type of schooling is a great investment in your future!



What is a college?

A college is an institution or establishment providing postsecondary education. For most people who are thinking about pursuing higher education, college is their first thought.

Colleges aim to provide a well-rounded education. For that reason, most will require you to spend the first half of your undergraduate program taking general education courses. These typically include courses in English, science, history and mathematics.

General education classes set you up for success within a wide range of majors, and provide you with the flexibility over the first year or two to make a decision about which specific degree you want to pursue.

Types of Colleges

There are actually several different types of colleges, including:

  • Brick and mortar campuses
  • Online institutions
  • Public colleges and universities
  • Private colleges and universities
  • For-profit institutions
  • Not-for-profit institutions
  • Community colleges
  • Trade / Technical / Vocation schools

As you can see, trade schools are a type of college. But for the sake of this discussion we will treat them as different, so that we can compare a traditional bachelor’s degree from a college vs trade school.

Earning potential with a college degree

How much you can expect to make after graduating college is dependent on a number of factors, including your location, experience, and most importantly, your specific career path.

According to the BLS, the median annual salary for all bachelor’s level occupations in 2017 was $72,830.

You could earn much less than that, or much more, depending on your field. In some fields, though, you could earn much more.  Some of the highest paid careers you can get with a bachelor’s degree include:

  • Computer Information Systems Manager: $146,360
  • Financial Manager: $129,890
  • Petroleum Engineer: $127,720

Statistics show that the higher your education, the higher your earning potential.

The BLS provides the following breakdown of median weekly earnings by education levels, clearly showing the impact a degree has on one’s earning potential:

  • High school diploma: $712
  • Some college, no degree: $774
  • Associate degree: $836
  • Bachelor’s degree: $1,173
  • Master’s degree: $1,401
  • Doctoral degree: $1,743
  • Professional degree: $1,836

Regardless of the type or level of degree you are pursuing, you can increase your earning potential by continuing on with your education and/or earning valuable experience by working in the same industry for a number of years.

What are the advantages / disadvantages to Traditional College?

Traditional college is the go-to choice for high school graduates and adults going back to school because of a few key advantages:

  • More versatility. If you change your mind about your career path while still in college, many of your credits will easily transfer to a new school or major. If you change your mind later on and wish to pursue another area within the same field, your education may be versatile enough that you will not need to pursue a new degree.
  • Broader curriculum. A college curriculum is well-rounded and diverse, giving you opportunities to explore a variety of interests.
  • More degree options. Traditional college students have access to far more degree programs, as well as options for minors or concentrations to help provide additional, complementary education.
  • Continued learning opportunities. Colleges offer multiple degree options at both the undergraduate and graduate level, allowing students to spend many years learning everything about a subject.
  • Higher earning potential. A professional with a college degree typically earns more than someone with a trade school education.

The clear disadvantages of traditional college include the much higher cost and duration of the programs. College is a serious investment!

Do I need a degree to make a good living?

Not necessarily.

Statistics show that the higher the degree you have, the higher your earning potential will be. While that’s generally true, there are trade school graduates who make considerably more money than those with bachelor’s degrees.

For example, according to the BLS, the median salary for Mental Health Counselors with a bachelor’s degree is $46,240. But a Dental Hygienist who went to trade school earns a median salary of $76,220 – almost $30,000 more! (And that’s not even taking into consideration the substantial debt the bachelor’s degree holder may have incurred.)

How much you earn really depends on your field and years of experience, not just your education. You can make a very good living with a trade school or college education.


What is the difference between trade school and college?

It would be easy to say that trade schools are for students who want to learn a trade, and colleges are for students who want to learn anything else. But it’s not that simple!

There are many differences (and some similarities) to note when comparing trade school vs college.

Here is a helpful overview:


Trade School Traditional College
Program Duration A few months to 2 years, depending on the program and whether a student attends full or part-time Bachelors Degree – 4 years, depending on whether a student attends full or part-time
Curriculum Career-specific; Hands-on learning and apprenticeships; No extra courses / general education Broader education including general education requirements in English, science, history and math
Class Size Small; Instructors provide more hands-on learning and are more accessible Varies by school and program; Small to very large
Cost Varies depending on program, institution and location; Average of $33,000 Varies depending on program, institution and location; Average of $127,000
Training Specialized, hands-on training in a setting similar to your future workplace; Little to no on-the-job training needed later on Varies depending on the program; May require on-the-job training later on
Versatility Not versatile; Cannot switch mid-way through program; Difficult to change careers later on May be versatile; Credits may transfer mid-way through program; Easier to change careers later on
Financial Aid Eligibility Grants, Student Loans (FAFSA)


Grants, Student Loans (FAFSA)


Accredited Programs Available Yes Yes
Online Learning Available Yes, depending on the field Yes, depending on the field


How do I decide whether trade school vs college is right for me?

Even after understanding the differences, you might be asking yourself: “Is trade school better than college?” or “Is college better than trade school?” But really, trade school vs college is a personal choice. You will have to think about your own personal goals.

Are you a student with a variety of interests who isn’t sure which career is the best fit? Then a traditional college degree program that gives you the time and opportunity to explore your interests through general education classes may be a good choice for you.

On the other hand, if you are a student with a solid plan for where you would like to take your career, and you want to get out into the workforce as soon as possible, a trade school may be the best option to get you on the fast-track toward earning the necessary certifications!

There is no wrong answer when it comes to trade school vs college. Both options can help you achieve your goals and get into the career that’s right for you.

Ready to start your journey?
Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.