Trade School vs. College – How to Decide?

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When it comes to furthering your education and boosting your earning potential, you may be wondering what the differences are between trade school vs. college.

Trade School vs College

When debating if you should attend a trade school or a traditional college, it’s important to understand the differences between the two.

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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’s the Difference Between Trade School vs. College?

College students walking within school premises

When comparing trade schools and colleges, it’s important to note that the biggest difference is coursework. With a trade school, you will focus on learning specific skills while in college, your degree program will focus on general courses and specific career-related courses.

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It’s helpful to understand the differences between each institution.

What Is a Trade School?

Students in a Trade School, learning in automotive

There are many different types of trade schools,  also known as vocational schools, career schools, or technical schools, that teach 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 colleges.

What Is a College?

College students in a Traditional college

A college is an institution or establishment providing postsecondary education. For most people who are thinking about pursuing higher education, the various types of colleges are 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.

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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.

Trade School vs. College Earning Potential

Teacher and students in an automotive mechanic trade school
The earning potential between a trade degree and a college degree can be surprising. We highlight the differences below and give some examples of careers with their earning potential.

Earning Potential With a Trade

in-demand trade school careers

Some people may think that trade industries don’t pay well, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Check out the earning potential for some popular, in-demand trade school careers according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Careers Annual Median Salaries
Web Developers $78,330
Dental Hygienists $77,810
Diagnostic Medical Sonographers, Cardiovascular Technicians $75,380
Line Installers and Repairers $74,530
Drafters $60,290
Plumbers, Pipefitters and Steamfitters $59,880
Paralegals $56,230
Automotive Service Technicians / Mechanics $46,880
Heating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installers $46,630
Medical Transcriptionists $30,100

As you can see, trade schools offer a lucrative skillset that can be used to jump-start your career. The earnings listed will vary based on employer, education, and overall experience.

Earning Potential With a College Degree

highest-paid careers you can get with a bachelor’s 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.

Some of the highest-paid careers you can get with a bachelor’s degree include:

  • Computer Information Systems Managers: $159,010
  • Financial Managers: $131,710
  • Petroleum Engineers: $130,850

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

Trade School vs. College Pros and Cons

Pipefitting and Steam fitting class in a trade school
It’s helpful to understand the pros and cons of both a trade school and a traditional college. Below we list the common pros and cons of each to help you decide which is best for your needs.

Trade School College
Pros
  • Faster completion times
  • Smaller classes
  • Lower cost
  • Broad curriculum
  • Continued learning opportunities
  • More versatility
Cons
  • Lack of versatility
  • Focused coursework
  • Credits do not transfer
  • Can take longer to complete
  • More expensive
  • Less flexibility

As you can see above, while trade schools may offer small classes their credits do not transfer. On the flip side, while colleges offer more versatility, the degree programs cost a lot more.

What are the Advantages / Disadvantages to Trade Schools?

Students in a Trade School, attending lectures

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 of 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.

What are the Advantages / Disadvantages to Traditional Colleges?

Students in a traditional school, attending class

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 levels, allowing students to spend many years learning everything about a subject.
  • Higher earning potential. A professional with a college degree typically earn more than someone with a trade school education.

The clear disadvantages of the traditional college include the much higher cost and duration of the programs.

Trade School vs. College Cost of Education

Students listening attentively to to their teacher

The cost of college versus the cost of a trade school can vary greatly. Trade schools are more tailored to a specific field of study while colleges offer a more general approach, which can take longer. It’s important to consider the cost of each when making the best choice for your needs.

How Much Does Trade School Cost?

Trade schools typically cost significantly less than traditional colleges and universities. The program lengths are shorter and the courses are specific to a field of study.

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You can expect to pay between $3,600 to $14,500 for a trade school program. The cost of each program will be determined on the course length and skills being taught.

How Much Does College Cost?

Traditional college costs significantly more than trade school. This is due to various reasons like longer program length and more general courses offered throughout the program.

Tuition rates on a per credit hour basis vary greatly depending on the school you are attending and the degree you are pursuing. You can expect to pay, on average, $310 to $1200 per credit hour at any public postsecondary school.

Program Lengths for College vs. Trade School

College students working in a group project
Program lengths vary for trade school vs college based on the field of study. Trade school programs often take less than two years to earn your certificate or diploma. Traditional colleges, on the other hand, can take up to four years to earn your degree. Some of the fastest trades to learn take even less than 2 years.

Trade schools are designed to have dedicated courses to help students enter the workforce quickly. If you choose a traditional college degree program, you can accelerate the time spent on your degree by taking summer classes.

Admissions Process for College vs. Trade School

Man with a bachelors college degree working in his office
The admissions process for a trade school vs a college is quite different as well. To attend a trade school, you typically will need your high school diploma and a completed application for the next program course available.

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Alternatively, to attend a college you will need to fill out an application, submit your transcripts, and wait for acceptance. Some colleges also require letters of recommendation, an admissions essay, and PSAT scores. Admission into a trade school is usually quicker and easier while admission into a college is a bit more competitive and has more requirements.

Is Trade School Better Than College?

The decision to attend a trade school has its pros and cons just as any other school decision you make. With a trade school diploma, you will have the skills required to work within the given field.

If you have a goal of entering the workforce and using a specific skill set, trade school may be the best option for you. If you are more interested in continuing your education and learning a broad set of skills, college may be the right choice. The choice of which is better for you is a personal choice and is dependent on your own situation.

Are Trades in Demand?

Students learning HVAC in a Trade School

Yes! Trade industries are in very high demand. Those who work in a trade often have a great level of job security. 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, plumbers are expected to see a 2% and 4% growth over the next 10 years, while those working in HVAC are expected to see a 5% growth over the same time period.

Those working with web development will see a 23% growth rate over the next decade. 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 Are High Paying Trade Jobs?

High Paying Trade Jobs

Trades are in high demand, and having a skillset for a specific trade can serve you well throughout your career. Some high paying trade jobs and their annual median salaries according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics include:

  • Construction Manager: $98,890
  • Dental Hygienist: $77,810
  • Diagnostic Medical Sonographer: $77,740
  • Electrician: $60,040
  • Plumber: $59,880
  • HVAC Technician: $48,630

You can use your skills to move up the ladder after earning some work experience, too.

Do You Need a Degree to Make a Good Living?

business professionals in a seminar

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 bachelor’s degrees is $48,520. But a dental hygienist who went to trade school earns a median salary of $77,810. That’s not even taking into consideration the substantial debt the bachelor’s degree holder may have incurred.

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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’s the Difference Between Trade School vs. College?

Trade Schools vs. Colleges

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)
Scholarships
Grants, Student Loans (FAFSA)
Scholarships
Accredited Programs Available Yes Yes
Online Learning Available Yes, depending on the field Yes, depending on the field

When deciding between attending a trade school or a traditional college, it can be helpful to consider all of the above points. Choose what fits best for your personal situation and what will help you achieve your long-term career goals.

What’s the Difference Between a Trade School vs. Community College?

Students talking on the campus grounds

While trade schools options and community colleges options have some similarities, like program length and lower cost, they are quite different as well. A community college offers certificate programs and associate degrees.

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With a community college, you will likely be able to transfer credits to a 4-year college and you will likely take general courses like English and math. With a trade school, you will still focus on a specialized trade that prepares you for the workforce with non-transferrable credits.

Trade School or College – Which is Right for You?

Two friends discussing about trade school or college

Even after understanding the differences between trade school degrees and college degrees, 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 an accredited 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.

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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.