Trade School vs College: The Showdown

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Trade school and college are both great options. But which road is the right road for you? Trade School vs College – see the differences that we hope will help you see your path a little clearer.

2 roads splitting, choose trade school or college

The Economic Value of Education

There is a lot of noise included in the numbers, but it should not be surprising that the people who earn the most during their lives are usually those who were performed in the top 10% of the class in the most challenging fields of study. Yes, there are highly educated people who are penniless and there are dropouts who became multi-millionaires but let’s focus on the typical outcomes and not the exceptions.

In virtually all cases, increasing your education level increases your total lifetime income. All things being equal, and despite all of the disruption in the workforce, a college education still improves your long term earning potential significantly – but there are many factors that have to be taken into consideration.

College, Inc.

4 year colleges and universities have the stated purpose of 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 with graduates.

In order for a college degree to make sense for you, you have to have specific goals and a business plan in place before you start sending in your 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 pays 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.

Student Loan Burden

Unless you are going to a top-tier university, it is simply 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. 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.

Trade Schools

Trade schools intend to help students begin their careers within a specific vocation. The curriculum is based around a specific field of study and students will attend full time for up to two years, earning a certificate rather than a degree.

Learning a skilled trade is more focused than a college degree. Viewed with the glass half full, that means that the skills are more relevant for specific careers. If your glass is half empty, that means that the trade school certificate is less adaptable than a college degree. You are making a trade offs, whichever of the two options you choose. If you have a skilled trade, you will need to stay current with your professional skills to stay competitive in your field.

Many of the same criticisms directed at 4 year schools can be focused on trade schools as well. Not all trade schools are created equal, so you will need to do your homework when you are comparing your education options.

We have a great article to help you learn more about what a trade school is here if you are not familiar with them.

Time, Costs, and Earning Potential

Program LengthExpected total cost (cost
includes room and board)
Estimated Lifetime
Total Average
Earnings (40 years)
Private College4 Years$175,000$1,200,000
State College4 Years$80,000$1,200,000
Associates Degree2 Years$35,000$865,000
Trade School3-18 Months$33,000Job Specific

The earning totals for college graduates and for those with associate degrees have been studied for decades so the numbers are reliable. But, keep in mind that these are lifetime earning averages, and the highs and the lows within both degree levels can be significant. Lifetime earnings will depend on both the specific degree that was studied and the class rank of the graduate.

The same is true for trade school graduates – earnings will depend on what you studied and how well you did. In many cases, attending college is still a good financial investment.

However, some trade school graduates will earn consistently more than many college graduates. Whether you graduate from college or trade school, there are factors outside of your control that can influence how much you earn. Regardless of which career path you choose, a percentage of your total earnings will be affected by where you live, your personal ambition, and in some cases, pure luck.

You need to research the average earnings for the trade that you are interested in pursuing. Trade schools should have a placement department that can explain which companies recruit at their school, put you in touch with prior graduates, and perhaps enroll you in a feeder program for a company that might subsidize your tuition. In many fields, skilled tradespeople are in short supply.

To estimate total lifetime earnings for a skilled trade, you would multiply the average annual salary by 40 years.

Job Satisfaction

You have to consider work satisfaction. You will be working 2000 hours per year in your job, so you should do something that you love. 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.

True Costs

If you are interested in paying out of pocket for college, community college, or a trade school, contact them directly and have them create a proposal for you that calculates reasonable net out of pocket costs. This proposal needs to be on a spreadsheet so you can adjust the numbers. Compare all of the possible alternatives side by side so that you have the true (net) costs on the same line.

Time Cost of Education

Attending college will usually take you out of the labor market for 4 years. You can have a very low income during this time, with either a summer internship or a part time summer job. If you prepare yourself properly and get good grades, you can start taking job interviews in your junior year. If you are recruited, you can start working shortly after you graduate. Trade school can take up to two years to complete. Unlike college, there will be no summer or seasonal breaks. Your income will be low while you are studying. You should start networking with prospective employers as soon as possible. As is the case with being recruited from college, you can start working shortly after graduation

Education versus Learning

If you are a dedicated reader, you can absorb much of the same knowledge that you would have learned in college by reading the same roster of books and then associating with special interest groups to share ideas. The way that you speak and write is a reflection of the ideas that you feed your mind. People can tell if you are educated by the way that you express yourself.


The greatest single factor of personal success is YOU: your attitude, your hard work, your interests, your commitment, and how well you network yourself. Goal setting and self-discipline are key, as is setting budgets for time and money. Keep in mind that different people will have different measures of personal success – whether it is financial wealth, power, personal relationships, personal prestige, helping other people, and so on.

Next steps

So in the trade school vs college option it is vital that you learn about your interests and abilities to help you choose the right path. Put them on paper or type them into a spreadsheet. Second, you must create plans and measurable goals. Put them in writing as well, next steps, and target dates for completion. The processes of defining your interests and setting goals are two things that you should do regularly throughout your life. There is a lot of self-help information on-line and at your public library.

If it was easy, there wouldn’t be so many books on the subject. You should never feel embarrassed about reading self help books. People who are not interested in self-improvement are afraid, lazy, or lying. The key is that you need to focus on what you want to achieve.

Please contact us if you have questions or comments.

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