By Genevieve Carlton
Published on October 19, 2020
Choosing between trade school vs. college can shape your entire career. Prospective students may feel stuck wondering "Should I go to college or should I go to a vocational school?" If you are trying to decide whether to earn a vocational vs. college degree, this article offers tips to make an educated choice.
You can begin by reflecting on your interests and career goals. The subjects offered in a trade school vs. college lead to different career paths. For example, future allied health professionals benefit from a vocational program, while fields like education and business more often require an academic degree.
You should also consider how long it takes to earn each degree. Most vocational programs take two years or less, while a bachelor's degree takes four years. Tuition rates, earning potential, and job demand can also help you choose whether to attend trade school or college.
Both trade school and college prepare graduates for a variety of career paths. Students must make personal choices about which option works best for their unique circumstances.
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What is vocational school? And what can you study to earn a vocational degree? Vocational schools emphasize career-focused training in fields like healthcare, manufacturing, and technology. During a vocational program, learners gain practical knowledge and skills in their area of study. After completing a certificate or degree, graduates pursue careers in their field.
The most popular occupational programs include the health sciences, business, manufacturing, protective services, and the computer or information sciences. Learners can also study legal services, cosmetology, emergency services, or business in a vocational program.
Most vocational degrees blend classroom and experiential learning. For instance, allied healthcare programs include clinical hours in a medical facility. Mechanics practice their skills in a shop or lab. Emergency services programs incorporate a practicum that allows students to train in an ambulance or hospital.
For more information, visit our page on vocational and trade schools.
Instead of focused training for a specific career path, an academic degree emphasizes skills like research, analytical thinking, and problem-solving. Students in academic programs often take 1-2 years of general education courses before choosing a major.
Academic colleges offer a much wider range of subjects than vocational schools. Most four-year colleges offer majors in business, education, the liberal arts, and the health sciences. Degree-seekers can study disciplines such as chemistry, mathematics, history, art, and sociology. The most popular majors include business, the social sciences, health professions, psychology, biology, and engineering.
Since academic degrees emphasize transferable skills, they often require general education courses. Classes in English, communications, mathematics, and the natural sciences strengthen core abilities like critical thinking. In general, vocational degrees do not include general education requirements.
Vocational programs offer certificate and degree options. Learners can complete a vocational program in as little as a few months or as long as two years.
Most vocational certificates take around one year. Many programs divide their certificates into short-term and long-term certificates. A short-term program may take a few months, while a long-term certificate generally takes 9-18 months. Earning a vocational degree typically takes two years. An associate of applied science degree, for example, prepares graduates for trade careers and takes two years.
Some of the fastest vocational programs include physical therapy aide, commercial truck driver, and bookkeeper. Earning a short-term certificate in one of these fields takes less than six months.
Many trade schools offer full-time, part-time, or accelerated enrollment options. A part-time option often appeals to working professionals, while students eager to complete their training may prefer an accelerated program.
Earning an academic degree generally takes 2-4 years, depending on the degree and the student's enrollment status. An associate degree requires around 60 credits and typically takes two years. A bachelor's degree requires at least 120 credits and takes full-time students around four years.
Colleges offer several enrollment options for undergraduates. Full-time students earn 30 credits per year on a semester schedule of 45 quarter credits each year. Choosing a part-time schedule can add several years to the degree.
Learners can also accelerate the process of earning an academic degree. At some schools, students can take additional classes each semester, enroll in summer classes, or take accelerated courses on a shorter term to earn more credits per year. Many colleges also offer credit for prior learning or grant credit for AP classes.
The cost of a vocational degree depends on the school and program length. For example, for-profit vocational schools charge higher tuition rates than public two-year schools. The Center on Education and the Workforce reports that for-profit trade schools cost nearly $20,000 per year. In contrast, public community colleges charge under $7,000 per year.
However, since a vocational degree generally takes two years or less, trade school students generally spend less overall than students pursuing a four-year degree. Earning a vocational degree also helps professionals enter the workforce faster.
Prospective students can save on a vocational degree by comparing costs at different schools. An in-state public community college often offers the most affordable vocational training. Learners can also reduce costs by researching credit for prior learning or credit for professional experience. Finally, students attending accredited schools may qualify for several forms of financial aid, including federal student aid, scholarships, and grants.
A four-year academic degree can cost under $10,000 or over $30,000 per year, depending on the school. At public universities, students pay around $9,000 per year in tuition and fees. Private universities charge nearly $32,000 in tuition and fees per year, on average. Tuition rates can also vary depending on whether students qualify for in-state or online learning tuition discounts.
Many college students use financial aid to pay for school. On average, students at four-year institutions receive $13,000 per year in grants and scholarships. Recipients do not need to repay these awards. Students at accredited colleges can also take out federal loans to pay for school.
Students can lower the cost of an academic degree by taking some classes at a community college. Public two-year colleges charge around $3,000 per year in tuition. Students can earn credits at a lower tuition rate and transfer them toward a bachelor's degree. Other options like testing out of classes, taking AP classes, or choosing an accelerated program can also save money.
What's the career potential with a vocational vs. college degree? Many vocational career paths report high demand and above-average salaries.
The median annual salary for technical and trade school careers exceeds $59,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, salaries vary widely within the field. For example, vocational management professionals earn nearly $98,000 per year, while personal care and service professionals make $30,700.
The earning potential with a vocational degree depends on the field and career path. The highest-paying vocational careers include air traffic controller, radiation therapist, nuclear technician, and dental hygienist, according to the BLS. In these fields, median annual wages exceed $74,000.
Several other factors contribute to total compensation. For example, some fields offer better benefits and perks, including paid time off and retirement plans. Students should consider working hours and working conditions as they evaluate their options. Some careers require long or irregular hours, particularly in the healthcare field.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that in 2009, professionals with an occupational credential benefited from a higher employment rate than those with an academic credential.
Like vocational careers, jobs with an academic degree offer a range of salaries.
Earning a bachelor's degree translates into higher earnings, on average. Professionals with a bachelor's degree earn nearly $19,000 more each year than those with an associate degree.
In 2017, men with a bachelor's degree earned nearly $72,000 per year, while women with a bachelor's degree earned $52,400 per year, according to the NCES.
High-paying jobs with a bachelor's degree include management roles like chief executive, marketing manager, and financial manager. Engineering, computer science, and healthcare degrees also lead to high salaries.
Compared to a vocational degree, an academic degree offers greater career flexibility. An academic degree does not limit graduates to working within their major. In fact, many college graduates work in fields outside of their major. An academic degree offers the best preparation for careers that require a master's or doctoral degree.
Can I Study Online for a Vocational Degree?
Some trade schools offer online programs, but vocational distance learning depends on the subject. Since vocational degrees train students for specific career paths after graduation, they often involve hands-on components.
Online programs in healthcare and manufacturing, for instance, may use a hybrid format in which students complete coursework online while meeting in-person requirements locally. Online dental hygienist students practice their clinical skills in laboratories and dental offices, while online skilled trades programs include apprenticeship-like components in the learner's local area. Some of these hybrid programs may only offer degrees to local students who can travel to campus to complete in-person requirements.
However, many vocational programs work well in an online format. Certificates and degrees for paralegals, administrative professionals, office managers, and construction managers often translate well to an online learning format.
Check out the top vocational schools that offer online programs.
Most academic subjects translate well into an online format. Undergrads can earn a degree in fields such as business, social work, the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences online. In fields like nursing and education, online learners complete coursework online while meeting clinical or student teaching requirements locally.
However, some subjects offer fewer online options. Law programs limit online learning, and fields like engineering that include many hands-on requirements may not offer distance learning.
For many students, an online format offers several advantages over an in-person format. Online learners may benefit from tuition discounts and in-state tuition rates if they live in another state. Choosing an online format also saves undergrads on housing, transportation, and parking costs. Working professionals and parents often appreciate the flexibility of an online program. Finally, online programs let learners enroll in a top-ranking school without relocating.
Learn more about the best online colleges.
Trade and vocational schools that follow the best practices in training students hold accreditation. To earn accreditation, schools undergo a rigorous review from an independent, nonprofit accrediting agency. Accreditation agencies may review entire institutions or specific programs within a school.
Vocational schools generally hold national accreditation from an organization like the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges or the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education & Training.
In addition to accreditation, vocational schools should also hold a license to operate in the state. Applicants can use the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's list of state licensed or authorized institutions to research licensing information.
Checking for accreditation and a license helps prospective students avoid diploma mills. Prospective applicants should also look into a school's admission rate, graduation rate, and job placement rate. Learners should avoid schools that do not publish this data.
Like trade schools, academic colleges and universities also hold accreditation. For liberal arts and research institutions, regional accreditation represents the gold standard. Six regional accrediting agencies evaluate public and private institutions of higher education in different parts of the country. These agencies measure colleges on their student learning outcomes, faculty qualifications, and academic mission. In some fields, like education, nursing, and business, programs may also hold accreditation from a programmatic accrediting agency.
Attending an unaccredited school or program can harm your career. Before applying to any college or university, check its accreditation status in the U.S. Department of Education database.
Make sure to choose an accredited school. Accreditation benefits students in several important ways. Credits earned at an accredited institution will more likely transfer to other schools, and only students at accredited schools qualify for federal financial aid. Many professional licenses and certifications require an accredited degree.
Students choosing between trade school vs. college should also consider their higher education options. In many fields, a vocational degree does not easily translate into higher education programs that prefer academic training.
For example, four-year universities typically grant fewer transfer credits to applicants with a vocational degree. This is in part because academic courses meet general education requirements at bachelor's-granting institutions, while vocational courses generally do not. Prospective students considering a bachelor's or graduate degree in an academic discipline may find college more valuable than trade school.
In other fields, vocational training can more easily translate into a higher degree. For example, allied health certificates can help professionals transfer into an associate or bachelor's program.
Earning another degree is not the only option for further training. Vocational professionals can consider non-degree options like an apprenticeship or on-the-job training to advance their career.
An academic degree prepares graduates for many options in higher education. For example, many associate degrees meet the general education requirements for a bachelor's degree, meaning transfer students can earn a four-year degree in two years. With a bachelor's degree in an academic field, graduates can also apply to master's and doctoral programs.
Earning a master's degree generally takes two years, although some programs offer accelerated options that may take as little as one year. A doctorate, the highest degree in academia, often takes five or more years. On average, graduate tuition costs more than $19,000 per year, according to the NCES. Graduate students qualify for many forms of financial aid, including federal loans, graduate fellowships, and assistantships.
Professionals such as lawyers, political scientists, nurse practitioners, psychologists, and professors need a graduate degree. Prospective students considering these careers will likely benefit from an academic degree rather than a vocational degree.
Should I Go to a Vocational School or a University?
Choosing between a vocational degree, an online certificate, or a bachelor's degree can feel overwhelming. But by considering your interests, career goals, and timeline, you can confidently answer, "should I go to college or should I go to a vocational school"?
The choice between trade school vs. college ultimately comes down to personal priorities. For example, aspiring healthcare professionals might prefer allied health training at a trade school versus career paths that require a master's or doctoral degree.
When it comes to costs, learners at colleges and vocational schools qualify for financial aid. Many scholarships and grants support students pursuing academic degrees and vocational degrees.