Trade School vs. College: Time, Cost and Other Factors

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They say real life begins the moment you step out of high school. For some, education stops there. But if you wish to further your education, it’s crucial to consider the career training that works best for you. College is ideally the next best step after receiving your high school diploma. While this may seem like a viable option, don’t forget that you also have another alternative: trade school.

When you decide between a trade school and a college, the key is to go over your interests, strengths, and career goals. In this article, get to learn everything you need to know about trade schools and colleges: their pros and cons, similarities and differences, and so much more. 

What is a Trade School?

Also called a vocational school or a technical college, a trade school provides specialized training for in-demand occupations. Unlike associate degree programs offered by technical colleges that provide hands-on training, a trade school focuses on equipping students with the skills required for specific career paths. 

Trade schools are considered the answer to the scarcity of skilled workers that industries currently face amid the current labor disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Typically, liberal arts and general education are removed from a trade school curriculum because they focus on skilled vocation. For this reason, trade schools are deemed providers of vocational education, the general term that can also encompass technical and career schools. 

Trade school education leads to careers in skilled trades, while career and technical schools generally focus on practical training and marketable skills. Plus, the programs in technical schools are more lecture-style than in trade schools.

A trade school also provides certificates and diplomas upon completion. Although this will depend on the trade, a trade school graduate may qualify to enter their respective professions directly, become a journeyman or apprentice, or even sit for a licensure examination. 

Trade School: Shaping a Skilled Workforce 

After you graduate from high school, you have so many opportunities to pursue your choices on what you want to do next, and sometimes, this can be daunting and overwhelming. Taking a gap year or going straight to university are both obvious choices. But you have another option: trade school. However, is it worth it? 

Here are good reasons to attend trade school:

  • Start-when-you’re-ready culture. One of the best features of trade schools is that they are offered at multiple start dates. Throughout the year, you can find rolling admissions from most trade schools. Meaning, you don’t have to wait either until the fall or spring semester to start a program. And since classes in trade schools are relatively shorter than the conventional college setup, you can quickly jump in and start your program with little to no waiting time.
  • Small class sizes. When you attend a trade school, you will immediately notice the class size and how it impacts learning with like-minded peers. With smaller classes, you get individualized attention from your teacher, which can improve your skillset. The students in trade schools are expected to have the same interests as you, making it easier for you to create a group of like-minded peers who share the same career choice and passion as yours.
  • Career service opportunities. Because trade schools focus on teaching specific areas of skill, they pride themselves on successfully placing their students in jobs right after school. Most schools have counselors whose sole job is to secure their students’ employment after earning their degree or certificate. This reality proves how a trade school is so keen on a student’s success. It will also help provide internships, hands-on training, and industry-specific training so that each student will become successful in class and on the job.
  • Lots of savings. When you are in a trade school, you will spend less time in class to earn a degree. Because you have fewer classes to pay for, this can help you save a considerable chunk of money while going to school and improving your skill set. By the time you graduate and secure a career based on your degree or certificate, you are likely to earn more than high school diploma holders.
  • Staying current. Having a degree or certificate from a trade school means you can access the latest most in-demand jobs. The majority of the trade schools these days offer and teach programs that align with the latest technology, skills, and industry trends. You become more skilled and essential to employers and your future clients by having the proper skill set.
  • Relevant hands-on training. Trade schools are working very hard to give their students a real-life, hands-on experience. That’s why they must ensure that all their programs align with the latest trends in the field they teach and provide relevant hands-on training. It allows the students to hone further the skills they have learned in school and get the necessary experience they can in the real world right after they graduate.
  • Excellent job placement. Many trade schools advertise their job placement rate right after their students complete a program. By showing the number of successful graduates, they will reflect how successful they are in preparing their enrollees to secure jobs. Unlike the usual four-year or even two-year programs, trade schools aim to help you earn a job and help you successfully get there. When scouting for a trade school, it’s essential to ask them their job placement rate. 
  • Quick path to a career. If you strictly follow the time track that a trade school recommends, you can complete a career certificate or degree in just two years or less. This is a relatively shorter time compared to the usual two- or four-year college or university. There are even programs that take only a few months to complete! Thus, if you are trying to look for your dream job quickly, trade schools are your best option. 

What is a College Education?

Higher education provides better job opportunities for students and can lead to many benefits, including financial security and a prosperous career. In the 21st century, college plays a significant role in all the other aspects of your life. So when you achieve a college degree, your opportunities and overall quality of life are significantly improved. 

At present, many Americans have realized the importance of college education and its role in giving you a comfortable lifestyle and better career opportunities. In fact, 84% of Americans say college is very (47%) or extremely (37%) important to get a better life. Of this figure, 66% did not graduate from college, and 62% felt a higher education would have helped them improve their current standard of living. 

Why is higher education so important? In general, the practical benefits of having a college degree in the 21st century include:

  • Economic. The US National Center for Education Statistics has found that college graduates earn more and enjoy a low unemployment probability.
  • Health. When gainfully employed with a positive cash flow, you reduce the stress caused by financial insecurity—which a college degree can offer.
  • Civic Involvement. Graduates who have the financial resources give back to their community. When you earn well, your network expands, and you are likely to help charities and become involved in volunteer work.
  • Personal Development. College degree holders often lead structured lives. They have a stronger and more profound sense of responsibility that will serve as strength-builders in other life aspects.
  • Better Communication. Most of today’s jobs involve verbal or written communication—a typical course in most college curricula. Over time, graduates see themselves enhancing these skills in their professional careers.
  • Realization of Passions. Like most people, the more you gain from learning, the more you will discover your true passions in life. As you go through the whole schooling process, you will find out about the many facets of your chosen field, and from there, help you find your strengths.
  • Excellent Sense of Discipline. A college education’s demanding and challenging lifestyle instills you with the necessary discipline in the professional world. When you learn to follow even the most complex instructions and meet strict deadlines religiously, you become more prepared for the complex world of the marketplace.
  • Sense of Accomplishment. Remember that this results from your hard work and talent every time you complete a job task or school assignment.

Higher Education: Creating More Opportunities

Unlike in past generations, having a high school diploma is not enough today to open up the doors to different careers. In recent years, the US has turned its economy from a manufacturing-based industry to a knowledge-based field. The importance of college education today can be compared to what securing a high school diploma four decades ago provided: better opportunities and more career options. 

For many people, the fastest way to achieve a rewarding career is to go to college. Whether or not you already know what you will want after college, you are guaranteed that at least you can have a rewarding career knowing you have secured a college diploma. These factors are just some of why people invest their time and money in a college education. 

Trade School vs. College: Weighing Your Options

College and trade schools offer quality education and can help you launch your future career. But which of these should you choose? Are you suited for the traditional universities or the new-age trade schools?

Home to many extracurriculars, sororities, fraternities, and campus organizations, college ultimately lets students explore many career options. On the other hand, trade schools focus strongly on skill-based learning considering the limited time students spend on learning. 

Below are some considerations for a sound decision:

College vs. Trade School: The Admissions Process 

Every student starts to think about college shortly after they start their last year of high school. However, applying to colleges and universities is stressful and is even more competitive for top-tier colleges. Enrolling in college requires you to have a high SAT score. You should also have volunteer service projects, and your portfolio of all your extra-curricular activities must be expansive. Still, that’s not enough, especially for Ivy League schools.

In contrast, trade schools have uncomplicated admissions processes. Forget about cramming for your ACTs/SATs. Don’t bother about competing with thousands of student applicants so that you can secure a seat. You secure your high school diploma in trade schools, look for your ideal trade school, and enroll in their next available program. 

College vs. Trade School: The Duration

In college, an undergraduate degree usually takes at least four years to complete. Meaning, that if you immediately start college right after graduating from high school, you won’t be able to start working until you are 22 years old– even longer if you enroll in a graduate program after finishing college. Obtaining a college degree cuts out some years off your professional life. Plus, there’s no guarantee that you can secure a career in your field in the end. 

On the other hand, trade schools take only two years (or even less) to complete one program because they are generally intensive courses. General subjects and liberal arts classes are removed, which helps cut the schooling time to about two years. In trade schools, expect to get hands-on experience, which is valuable when joining the workforce right after studying. 

College vs. Trade School: The Credentials

A traditional four-year Bachelor’s degree, followed by a Master’s degree (although this is optional), ends with a shiny and crisp diploma (or two) hanging on your wall. Plus, the people you go to school with, study with, and even party with during college can help you build your career network later.

In trade schools, the diplomas and certificates awarded to completers are not equivalent to college degrees. However, these are enough to help you land a job within a field that will recognize these certificates. Some trade schools offer apprenticeship programs to their students. It assures the students that they have real-life experience in their chosen field when they complete the training.

College vs. Trade School: The Cost

Without batting an eye, college is undeniably expensive. And we are not just talking about pricey tuition fees. Think about the cost of maintaining a modest lifestyle during your university years– dormitories, food, allowances, and so much more. In 2021 alone, records show that the student loan debt in the US is $1.7 trillion. This means that the average student loan debt is $37,693. 

After graduating from college, you will start to think about loan repayments, and in most cases, it will take some time to secure them. And after you spend thousands of dollars on your bachelor’s degree, there is still no guarantee that you can land the job you truly want. But don’t let the hefty college costs stop you from earning a bachelor’s degree. Financial aid, loans, grants, and scholarships are always available. 

As with trade schools, the tuition fees are not as pricey as the fees from traditional colleges and universities. But even then, many state governments and trade organizations are now offering funding options to qualified students. 

College vs. Trade School: Job Security

One of the significant advantages of coming from a trade school is that you get so many job opportunities that cannot be outsourced, for example, automotive technician jobs. These jobs can’t be sent offshore since they are manual labor jobs. The same thing applies to other careers like plumbers, electricians, or chefs.

College degrees, meanwhile, are usually considered one-way tickets to job security. For many years, jobs like insurance have been outsourced. Even jobs in finance, healthcare, or teaching are no longer safe these days.

College vs. Trade School: Earning Potential

Do college degree holders earn more? Yes, they do. College teaches you a broad range of skills. After graduating, you will have a handful of job opportunities ahead. College graduates, on average, take home roughly $50,000 every year in their first job after graduating college– a figure that is more, compared to what non-college graduates make.

The average starting salary of a bachelor’s degree holder is $81,570, although this will vary depending on the type of degree:

  • English majors earn an average of $56,000 annually.
  • Engineering professionals have an annual wage of $83,700.
  • Doctors take home $223,410 every year.

Most high-paying jobs have other perks like maternity leave, healthcare, retirement benefits, and so much more. 

On the other hand, trade schools give you an earlier start, thanks to their shorter but more intensive programs. It kickstarts your career sooner than college graduates, and the earning potential isn’t too bad either:

College vs. Trade School: Soft Life Skills

It is crucial to focus on your GPA intensely. But it will not hurt to develop more life skills that can be of great help to you later. Many employers are interested in finding out whether you have a strong work ethic, positive attitude, and excellent problem-solving skills. This is where the college stands out. 

During your college years, it’s easier to build and develop these soft skills. For example, you can take extra classes you like, make friends with people from different cultures, or engage in college events and extra-curricular activities. However, just make sure that you need these extra courses and credits later in life so you won’t be wasting time. 

Trade schools offer short and vocation-specific courses. They teach, train, sharpen, and prepare their students for a specific industry. And unlike all colleges and universities, trade schools are not keen on character-building activities. Instead, all their programs are geared towards preparing you for the real world. 

What the Numbers Say

Here’s a summary of the facts pertaining to the costs, completion, and outcomes of attending a trade school, a two-year college, and a four-year college based on the national average:

National AverageFour-Year CollegeTwo-Year CollegeTrade School
Average Cost$9,410 per year$3,440 per year$5000-$15,000 Total
Time to Complete4 Years2 YearsThree months- 18 months
Other ExpensesBooks, housing, miscellaneous feesBook, housing, miscellaneous feesBooks 
AwardBachelor’s DegreeAssociate DegreeDiploma or Certificate of Completion 

The Case for Trade Schools

Students have a variety of trade programs to choose from that will lead to different careers. Here are the most popular ones:

CarpentryCarpenters work on buildings, and construction projects, repairing and installing fixtures and structures made of wood and other materials. As a carpentry student, you will learn to measure and cut materials, read blueprints, install systems and fixtures, and create and install building frameworks. Most carpentry trade programs today have an apprenticeship where you get to work with a professional carpenter directly. Trade students typically complete their program in two years and add a year or two for their apprenticeship. The median annual salary of carpenters is $51,390.

Masonry This program teaches you how to create structures using concrete, stone, and brick, read blueprints, mix mortar and grout, cut materials properly, and build corners. Safety or first-aid practices and building code requirements are also discussed.

Masonry programs take 1-2 years to complete, plus another 1-2 years post-graduation for an apprenticeship. Masons have a median annual salary of $49,490.

Electrical and Construction Management As an electrical and construction manager, you are the one to plan, manage, and oversee electrical and construction projects. This 2-year program will teach you building codes and standards, construction methods, materials, project management, and building science. You are also taught you can work with architects, engineers, and other construction experts. 

In this 2-year program, on-the-job training or apprenticeship follows right after completion. Construction managers have a median annual salary of $101,480.

Automotive TechnologyStudents studying automotive technology in a trade school are taught about repairing and maintaining trucks and cars. You will learn to properly use computerized diagnostic equipment, perform essential automatic maintenance and repairs, or test automotive systems and parts. This program takes about 12 months to complete. Before you can work, though, on-the-job- training is essential. The US BLS says automotive mechanics and service technicians have a median annual salary of $46,970. 

Heating, Ventilation, and A/C Systems (HVAC )A heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanic, and installer work with ventilation, heating, refrigeration, and cooling (HVAC) systems. In an HVAC trade school program, you will learn how to correctly install and maintain HVAC systems, discuss problems with clients, repair defective parts, and manage work records. 

The HVAC program runs between six and twenty-four months to complete. Other students also undergo apprenticeship that usually runs for 3-5 years. These mechanics make a median salary of $51,390 each year

Computer-Aided Drafting and ManufacturingThis program teaches you math, technical, and interpersonal skills. You will learn basic design fundamentals, practice drawing, and sketching, and work with the CAD (computer-aided design) software. You will also learn more about printing using AutoCAD and other manufacturing processes. Computer-aided drafting and manufacturing programs take roughly two years to complete. The annual median salary of professional drafters is $60,400

CosmetologyThis program will teach you different cosmetology skills like manicure and pedicure, skincare, haircutting, and hair coloring. You will understand more about hair analysis, safety, sanitation, treatment techniques, and using materials and tools properly. Customer service, listening skills, and time management are also some of the soft skills you will learn. 

A cosmetology program takes about two years to complete, and most US states need you to obtain a license and pass an exam after graduating before getting a job. Cosmetologists, hairstylists, and barbers make a median annual salary of $33,400

Why Choose Trade School Over College?

Records show that more and more Americans are graduating from university now than ever before. Surprisingly, not much is discussed about the long-term benefits that trade schools present. As you contemplate your next step after completing high school, consider the upsides and downsides of attending a trade school and a conventional college or university. 

College takes so much time. For many students, spending four years (or more) in college gives them that feeling of accomplishment, coupled with a degree from a reputable university that exudes a certain amount of prestige. But if you look deeper, four challenging years in college are difficult to achieve. The National Center for Education stated that 60% of students could not complete their degrees in just four years and instead needed at least six years to obtain a bachelor’s degree program

There’s no guaranteed job in your chosen field right after getting your college degree. Having a college degree will help you get a good start in your career, but employment is not guaranteed. Many college degree holders struggle to secure a job because their field is too specialized or too competitive. 

Additionally, more than 50% of the total college population at a public school drop out even before they graduate and sadly fail to go on with their classes. This is why studying for two years (or less) at a trade school may sound more appealing and manageable to students who recently finished their high school education. 

College is more expensive. The Department of Education states that, on average, a university needs to shell out more than $100,000 for four years of stay in college, and this price can sometimes go over $150,000 should you decide to enroll in a private college. But if you go to a trade school, the cost won’t’ go beyond $10,000. 

But why is college extra expensive? In college, you will have more choices in terms of your preferred subjects to study. You can also potentially continue your education and proceed to enroll in an advanced degree program in the future. 

Trade schools have fewer—therefore clearer—options and the tuition is more manageable. And if student loans pay for your trade school, then you’ll end up graduating with far less debt. 

Trade School Bonus: Skilled Technicians are Always In Demand. 

Aside from the fact that skilled technicians are always in demand, this also means that the skills you will learn from a trade school will never be sold overseas. For instance, HVAC/R technicians and electricians cannot lose their careers in a call center in another country because their work has to be done locally—they have to be physically present. Plus, their skills are needed worldwide, so it’s easier for them to secure a job no matter where they end up. 

The Case for College

College provides a better foundation for a successful career. When you start in a field without the proper education and skills, this can be extremely overwhelming. College does not only provide expert knowledge for a major or field; it also equips you with the essential teamwork skills and communication that help you succeed in your future workplace. 

Students with a college education are more prepared for the workforce, thus resulting in faster advancement, higher pay, and better performance. 

College gives you solid connections and networks. You can find many opportunities to form a relationship with your classmates, mentors, and teachers when you’re in college. These people will become your invaluable contacts in the future. Building a network with people who share the same interests will serve you well, especially when you’re scouting for employment. 

Your college degree helps boost your earning potential. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has explained that associate degree holders earn roughly $8,000 more each year than high school graduates. Bachelor’s degree holders make $24,000 more. Over time, this adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars! 

Why Choose College Over Trade School?

Trade school can mean tough class schedules. In trade schools, you will enroll in a limited option of courses and programs that will direct your path to apprenticeship and employment right after schooling. You can imagine the challenging schedules of squeezing all the crucial lessons in a field without compromising the program’s quality. 

Skill adaptability issues. In some cases, the skills you learn in your trade school might be so specific that you cannot apply to another job opportunity or trade. 

Financial aid is not guaranteed. Trade school students can still be awarded equal access to financial aid provided that their program must be at least 15 weeks long. Those in the shorter program may find it tough to secure assistance, though some grants or federal loans will still be available. 

Trade School vs. College: Putting It All Together

Students coming from trade schools can finish their programs sooner and with minimal debt—a great advantage of a trade school. Meaning, that you can work sooner and secure your loans faster. And if you add in the interest of student loans over time, trade school students can save considerably more.

On the other hand, college graduates have a longer-term income potential than trade school graduates, especially if they are the best in their field. To some, the prestige and potential attached to a college degree make the high costs and time-consuming attendance worthwhile.


Not sure which direction to take? Weigh the good and bad of the trade school or college you’re considering and think about exactly how either can take you closer to your career plans. Do your research. Ask family, friends, and people whose opinions you value.

Here’s the reality you need to know though: With or without a degree, education plays a crucial role in your future. 

Malcolm Peralty
Chief Editor