By Staff Writers
Published on June 05, 2020

Trade School vs. College: Which One is Right For You? Busting the Myth That Vocational Schools Are Less Than Their Four-Year Counterparts

Written by: Staff Writer

After high school, many graduates attend a traditional four-year college or university. But that option does not serve everyone, especially those who enjoy working with their hands, like welders, electricians, and hairstylists. These individuals might benefit more from a trade school than a conventional college.

The National Center for Education Statistics projects enrollment at postsecondary institutions, including trade schools, to increase to 17.2 million students by 2028. Prospective students should consider vocational salary. For example, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters need to attend trade school to join the practice. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), these professionals earned a median annual salary of $55,160 in 2019.

Graphic designers must earn a bachelor's degree, and the BLS reports a median annual salary of $52,110 for this profession. This example shows that some positions that require a bachelor's degree pay less than certain vocational positions. The BLS projects jobs for both graphic designers and plumbers to grow between 2018 and 2028, meaning both jobs should remain readily available when graduates earn their degrees.

Trade school costs less than a bachelor's degree. A four-year college degree costs $127,000 on average, while trade school programs cost about $33,000. Additionally, a higher tuition rate typically means a larger student loan payment and, therefore, less disposable income after graduation.

Is trade school better than college? This page outlines key differences between the two. Keep reading to gain more insight, including an interview from an industry expert on vocational school benefits.

Trade School vs. College: What Is the Difference?

Attending trade school or college depends on your career goals. For students who find themselves unsure of what career they want to pursue, college serves as an ideal choice. For students who know which occupation they want and prefer practicing a technical trade, attending a career school provides the most opportunity.

  1. Length: Trade school typically takes learners two years to complete, while a bachelor's degree averages four years. Completion time for each varies based on student schedules and credit requirements. For example, learners who must work full time during their studies typically take longer to complete their degrees.
  2. Subject Matter: Trade schools -- also referred to as vocational, technical, or career schools -- offer knowledge related to one occupation or topic, like cosmetology, construction, or baking. Colleges and universities offer a broad curriculum, so students take some courses indirectly related to their major.
  3. Degrees: Vocational schools offer associate degrees and certificates but typically not bachelor's degrees. Colleges and universities bestow associate and bachelor's degrees, certificates, and sometimes graduate degrees. Prospective students should consider whether their ideal employer prefers four- or two-year degrees.
  4. Accreditation: Both trade schools and traditional colleges can earn accreditation, even from the same accrediting bodies. For example, Ozarks Technical Community College, a trade school in Springfield, Missouri, earns regional accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission, as does Missouri State University, a traditional four-year college in the same city. Other trade schools earn national accreditation. The Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges serves as a top national accreditation agency for technical schools.
  5. Scholarships: Both trade schools and traditional colleges and universities offer scholarships. Keep in mind that some scholarships require the recipient to attend a four-year, regionally accredited institution. Trade school graduates become electricians, plumbers, welders, and bakers. College graduates earn jobs in a vast array of fields and work as public relations specialists, computer programmers, accountants, and secondary school teachers. Individuals who wish to earn their master's degree should earn a bachelor's degree from a university.

Trade school graduates become electricians, plumbers, welders, and bakers. College graduates earn jobs in a vast array of fields and work as public relations specialists, computer programmers, accountants, and secondary school teachers. Individuals who wish to earn their master's degree should earn a bachelor's degree from a university.

What Is a Trade School?

A trade school offers certificates and associate degrees to students who study a specific occupation like a paralegal or an electrician. Many degrees from trade schools lead to jobs with promising career outlooks. For example, the BLS projects jobs for electricians to grow 10% from 2018 to 2028. The BLS projects jobs for barbers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists to grow 8% during the same timeframe.

Trade schools offer degrees and certificates that take 1-2 years to complete. Courses require hands-on work and textbook work. For example, students earning an associate degree or certificate in baking may decorate cakes and complete written assignments. Some subjects, like automotive repair, may require an extensive apprenticeship in a professional setting like a repair shop.

Unlike colleges, trade schools typically do not require application essays or ACT and SAT scores. Trade schools set their own admission requirements, so students should check with their prospective school to learn more about minimum GPA acceptance.

Some trade school programs prepare students for professional licensing exams. For example, New York requires welders to earn a certificate and a license before practicing. The same rules apply for estheticians, who must take state licensing exams in Missouri. Trade school graduates continue their learning through on-the-job practice, additional certifications, and material from professional organizations.

Remember that a degree from a trade school prepares students to work in one field, which could pose a challenge for individuals who want to switch career paths later. Certain manual careers face the threat of automation, so individuals with trade degrees should consider diversifying their skill set through additional learning opportunities like certificates.

Biggest Benefits of Attending Vocational School

Many times, people overlook trade schools in favor of four-year colleges or universities, bypassing a beneficial educational opportunity. Not only is it cheaper to attend vocational schools, but graduates are also quicker to enter the workforce and can be set up for certain very lucrative careers. Find out more about the perks of choosing a vocational school over traditional college learning.

Should I Go to College or Trade School?

High school graduates should consider a few steps before deciding on trade school vs. college. First, choose a career, and research its education requirements. BLS offers this information, along with growth and salary information. If BLS notes that a desired career requires a bachelor's degree, attending a four-year college serves as the right option. If the occupation requires trade school, students can save money and time by earning an affordable certificate or associate degree.

Consider the time commitment required of trade school and a bachelor's program. A bachelor's degree can take longer than four years to complete for students who must work full time during their studies, while trade school can take 1-2 years to complete. Usually, the faster you earn a degree, the sooner you can enter the workforce and save for retirement. Individuals who earn a bachelor's degree may need to put financial goals on hold, but graduates who obtain generous salaries can make up for that time by putting more money in savings each month.

Also think about whether you prefer working with your hands or serving in a role that requires formal education. Hairdressers spend their days interacting with clients and using tools in an artistic way, and electricians benefit from versatile work settings. Some jobs that require formal education include similar benefits. Dentists interact with new patients daily, and public relations managers conduct media interviews outside the office.

Attending college or trade school depends on personal circumstances, career goals, financial goals, and time commitments. Both learning opportunities present benefits and drawbacks. Students who remain unsure of the right choice can start by earning an associate degree from a trade school and transferring their credits to a traditional college if they change their mind. Keep in mind that most accredited colleges only accept transfer credits from accredited trade schools.

Cost of Vocational vs. College Education

Trade school costs significantly less than a four-year degree. A four-year college degree costs $127,000 on average, while the average trade school program costs $33,000. Also, some community colleges with trade degrees offer free tuition.

Degree length represents one reason for varying costs between the two types of schools. Bachelor's degrees require twice as many credits as trade degrees, and since most colleges charge tuition on a per-credit basis, more credits equals higher tuition.

Trade school programs typically include an apprenticeship requirement. Some apprentices earn money. For example, individuals pursuing a certificate in woodworking may work for a business manufacturing furniture, learning their trade by constructing tables and chairs that the business can sell for profit. In return, the apprentice earns money.

Some jobs that require a bachelor's degree pay more than jobs that require a trade degree, and vice versa. The BLS reports that aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and technicians, who need only a trade degree, earned a median annual salary of $64,310 in 2019. Dental hygienists earned a median annual salary of $76,220 in 2019. Before deciding which degree to pursue, consider cost and salary, as these factors heavily influence disposable income upon graduation.

Is Trade School Right for You?

Trade school serves as a valid option for students who do not feel driven to attend college or who want to enter the workforce quickly and minimize debt. A bachelor's degree serves as an ideal choice for students who remain unsure of their specific career goals since it offers a broad curriculum and provides flexibility in changing majors.

The BLS projects growth in many trade jobs between 2018 and 2028, which means graduates will enter a robust job market. Some trade school programs require a paid apprenticeship so students can fund their studies and graduate nearly debt-free.

Besides gathering info, prospective students can consult with personal acquaintances who have completed either trade school programs or traditional degrees. They can ask if the graduates feel satisfied with their decision and how school helped them meet their goals. Admission counselors can also help connect prospective students with program graduates.

In terms of finances, trade school comes with a low risk. If trade school graduates decide to pursue a career path that does not align with their studies, they still graduate with relatively low student loan payments. However, students with a bachelor's degree who cannot find a job related to their degree face larger student loan payments on average. This serves as one reason prospective students should apply for scholarships and consider attending affordable colleges.

Many trade degrees take around two years to complete, but individuals should also budget time for taking a licensing exam if necessary. Students who attend trade school may need to attend school again in the future should they decide to switch career paths. However, this same risk exists for individuals who pursue a bachelor's degree that lacks versatility.

Additional Reading & Resources

The following information on comparing trade schools and college comes from a variety of sources, including the Department of Education. The first two resources provide links to specific field-related organizations and publications. The others compare vocational and trade schools and outline how trade school benefits military veterans.

  • Career and Technical Education Related Links: This list includes technical education centers and organizations, as well as related associations, resources, journals, and periodicals. These resources cover tech-prep leadership, the BLS, and the Journal of Workplace Learning.
  • Career and Technical Student Organizations: This list of career and technical student organizations highlights the Technology Student Association, SkillsUSA, and the National Future Farmers of America.
  • Vocational & Trade School: A Guide to Non-degree Education This website outlines careers available with technical education and details the number of people who occupy each job position and the rate of growth.
  • After Service: Trade Schools and Veterans: Learners can review transferable skills veterans have under their belt and understand how veterans can use the GI Bill toward their education, including apprenticeships, non-college learning through vocational schools, distance learning, and licensing and certification.

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