Trade School vs College: Which Is Right For You?

While many high school students will start prepping for college, there are many others that are unsure of where their future will take them. Some might even be wondering how to drop out of high school (which we do not recommend of course!).

There is so much to consider during these years and we know it is stressful. If you are trying to decide between trade school vs college, I hope the below information will help!

There are many pros and cons for both options, so let’s dive in and see what they are – and of course which path might make sense for your passions and life goals.

2 roads splitting, choose trade school vs college

What Is A Trade School?

Trade schools are focused on educating students on a specific skill or trade, omitting the need for them to learn courses that are not specifically relevant to their career path. You can get more details in our article “what is a trade school” where we go into more details as to what you can expect.

When you attend a trade school you will receive both hands-on learning and classroom time to learn the trade you are interested in. Most schools will last a few months to two years and upon your completion, you will be provided a certification or diploma.

Types Of Trade Careers

There is almost an endless list of trade careers! Skilled trade careers can be service-based, industrial-based, or construction based.

Let’s talk about the differences:

  • Service skilled trades can include nurses, therapists, or home health aides.
  • Construction skilled trades include bricklayers, masons, electricians, and carpenters.
  • Industrial skilled trades include mechanics, welders, and machinists.

Some of the most popular trade jobs include:

So as you can see, there is no lack of options for you out there if you are considering the trades! No matter what your interest or skills are – there is definitely something out there for you, no degree required!

Trade School vs College: An Overview

There is no wrong or right choice when deciding between attending a trade school or college.

What matters is that you select the path that is right for YOU!

Below is a summary of the main differences between trade school vs four-year college education. You might attend college for a trade job as well, but that would usually be a maximum of a two-year program, and you may achieve an Associate’s degree when you are done. All data below is averages or median and will vary based on the educational program or school you enroll in.

Trade SchoolPublic College (Bachelors)
Length of education6 months – 2 years4 years
AdmissionsGED or High School Diploma, no formal testing or application, easy to enrollSAT or ACT, interviews, application, many colleges have competitive admissions making it hard to get in
Earnings Upon Completion$58,598 [1]$55,630 on average [2]
Job SecuritySkilled trades cannot be outsourced and there is tremendous growth across the skilled trade employment segment.Many jobs can be outsourced for lower wages, including programming, business, and marketing. Not all careers that require college are showing growth – or even longevity.
Cost of Education[3]There is no formal trade school data, the US department offers data for schools that are two years or less which shows the average at $7,701 for a public school. Formal trade schools (not colleges) can range from approximately $4,000 to $15,000 annually.The average tuition for a public four-year college for an in-state student is $21,035 [4]

For the data above, it is important to note that the costs for college are for public colleges, not private ones – which are often much more expensive. Many can be well over $70,000 annually. Whether you attend a college as an in-state student or out-of-state student will also largely affect the cost.

Below is more in-depth information about the above table.

Trade School vs College Length

✔️ Trade schools have the edge for education length

Attending a four-year college means you will not be out in the working world until you are about 21-22 years of age. Even longer if you want a Master’s or doctorate degree. Not only that, but often that will include a load of debt that had to be taken to attend the school. Those four years may also be filled with courses that a college requires that are not really relevant to what you want to do. While all education is good education, if money or time is a concern, these are things you need to consider.

Trade schools are usually a few months to two years and are focused on the trade you want to do. There is no need to take general classes and you are tuned in to only the classes that can help you specifically with the career you want to do. The training is also very hands-on with a mix of classroom instruction so you get the experience you need.

Colleges

  • Four-years and up

Trade Schools

  • A few months to two-years on average

Trade School vs College Admissions

✔️ Trade schools have the edge in the admissions process

There are big differences in the admissions processes for colleges versus trade schools. Trade school requirements for admission are much easier than those of four-year colleges.

Below is a side-by-side comparison of the standard admissions process for both.

Note: Four-year colleges may require some or all of the listed items.

Colleges

  • Take the SAT or ACT
  • Have activities on your resume
  • Achieve a high GPA
  • Complete a formal application and write an essay
  • Undergo an interview with an admissions counselor
  • Competition is high with some schools only accepting 20-30% of all applicants.

Trade Schools

  • Have a GED or high school diploma
  • Submit an application to enroll

Trade School vs College Costs

✔️ Trade schools have the edge in college costs

While it is known that most college degrees will offer a better wage for the long term, that does not apply to every degree.

So, when considering college you should really consider the field you want to go into and whether the college you want to attend is worth it.

4-year colleges and universities are known for molding their students into young adults with the ability to master their environment using the unique worldview and sharpened skills that they have absorbed from the faculty and their fellow students. There are thousands of 4-year colleges and universities in the US and hundreds of different degrees of study.

Not all 4-year schools are created equal though.

Easy access to low-cost student loans has created an environment where the up-front costs of a college degree are artificially low when compared to their future value in the marketplace. This financial disconnect has created a lot of frustration among graduates.

In order for a college degree to make sense for you, you have to have specific goals in mind before sending in those applications.

In our opinion, unless you are enrolled in a rigorous pre-professional program, or you are pursuing a BS degree or STEM degree, the disappointing truth is that approximately 25% of the courses of many 4-year college BA degrees can be expensive fluff.

Sorry, but those are the facts. I’ve been there – sitting in a class with 200 other kids while a graduate student teaches you instead of the professor who you are paying top dollar to hear. 4-year schools intend to leave an imprint on your outlook on life and to create an active and inquisitive mind.

And if you are taking out student loans, you will be one of the college graduates who pay an average of $350 per month for the next 10 years after graduation.

That’s a lot of money.

You need to start thinking of your education as a business – and an investment.

Meanwhile, those attending trade schools are getting educated in only the skills they need to excel at the job they will do. This is why it is such a short educational requirement versus college.

The cost is much less which means you will be making your money back much quicker once you graduate. While you may need to take out loans for trade schools as well – they will be much less than those needed for a college education.

There are also many options for financial aid for trade schools as well.

Colleges

  • Public four-year colleges with in-state tuition can cost approximately $21,035

Trade Schools

  • Trade schools can range from $4,000-$15,000 for a program

Job Security

✔️ Trade schools have the edge for job security

The one big advantage for trade school graduates is that job security is high for their careers. It is rare that the work they do can be outsourced and they often survive times of economic difficulties. Because what they do is so needed, it is rare that there is not a needed for their services.

College graduates can find themselves replaced by lower-wage workers in other countries. Especially for careers like programming and even research. Many marketing or business jobs or some of the first to go when times get tough at a company too.

Trade School vs College Salaries

✔️Trade schools and college both have equal opportunities with salary

How much you make in a trade versus a career that requires a college degree will largely depend on what trade skill you learn as well as what you get a degree in.

For example, someone with a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting may cap their salary at 80K per year. While a truck driver with the same years of experience may be able to earn in excess of $100K a year.

If you are looking to earn a Master’s or Doctorate degree in your field, that may give you an edge over the trade jobs. But getting these degrees is costly and careers like Marketing or Business may not bring the return on investment you think.

Student Loans

✔️Trade schools have the edge on student loans

Loans are available for both college and for trade schools, so no matter which you attend – there is help for you. A small amount of debt should be expected, no matter which path you take. Well, unless you have rich parents to help you of course, which most of us do not have.

Unless you are going to a top-tier university, it is not worth it to go into debt up to your eyeballs to attend an expensive 4 year program. Once you have written down your education goals, you must research all education options that are available. The next step is to calculate the true out-of-pocket costs.

Be honest with yourself.

By the way, you do not want to go to college and be broke. To have an active social life at college costs a lot of money – that money needs to be earned or borrowed. Yes, college can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for you, and your classmates should become important business contacts after you graduate.

The school you are attending can be less important than is the fact that you are passing through a groundbreaking stage of your life: defining yourself as an adult, living on your own for the first time, and embracing new responsibilities. The years after high school are special but they do not need to be spent going to a 4-year college for them to be life-changing or memorable.

Job Satisfaction

✔️ Jobs satisfaction is about equal for trade school and college options

Being satisfied with your career choice is going to mean more than you can understand as a teenager. Work will become a huge part of your life and when you hate what you do – it will affect all parts of your life. In a study by Notre-Dame it was found that people who have invested in formal education are not always more satisfied in their job.

You will be working 2000 hours per year in your job, so you should do something that you love – but also something that can provide for you and your family.

Take into consideration the advantages of jobs that allow flexible hours, working from home, greater autonomy, or the opportunity to be creative. By learning more about your personality and work preferences you can decide if a career path is a good fit for you.

The one big negative of trade careers is that they are typically very physical in nature. This means you may put a lot of wear and tear on the body over the years, which may lead to issues when you are older. Many trade jobs might also not allow you to do your job after a certain age due to physical constraints that are natural as we age.

Trade School vs College Considerations

If you are considering trade school vs university, the length of the time of the program should only be a small part of your decision-making. You should also consider your future earnings, the cost of education, and the value of the degree you are considering.

We hope this guide has helped you understand all the important differences between college and a trade school education.

But, which path is right for you? Well, only you can answer that!

But here is a summary of trade school versus college details that you should consider:

College May Be A Better Choice

  • Learning is your passion
  • You have interests in many subjects that you want to explore
  • The thought of studying abroad excites you
  • You have the finances or support to help you pay the costs
  • Internships are something you are looking forward too
  • Activities like band, cheer, or sports are part of your life and you want to continue that path
  • You have dreams of being a doctor, lawyer, scientist, or another degree that may require advanced degrees past a Bachelors
  • If physical labor or working with your hands is not exciting to you

Trade School May Be A Better Choice

  • If the thought of four more years of school fills you with dread
  • Being outside for your career is high on the list
  • The thought of building or creating with your hands ignites a fire in you
  • If you are up for a thrill-seeking career that may give you a rush with its danger
  • If you are anxious to get into the working world
  • If finances are an issue
  • Grades in high school were not strong
  • Being a business owner is a dream of yours

If this article has convinced you that the skilled trades are right for you, then check out our guide on how to get started in the skilled trades.

trade school vs college graphic

Frequently Asked Questions

Sources:

[1] ZipRecruiter
[2] ThinkImpact – average college graduate salaries
[3] US Department of Education – data is for 2018-2019 school year
[4] Think Impact – average college tuition