Students’ Guide to Trade School vs. Traditional College Busting the Myth That Vocational Schools Are Less Than Their Four-Year Counterparts

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Melissa Rucker Read bio

Increasingly, the U.S. is becoming aware of students disproportionately choosing four-year universities over vocational schools, creating a gap in qualified workers in a number of fields. As the demand for trade workers rises alongside the cost of education, more prospective students are seeing the appeal of attending trade school. Continue reading to find an analysis of vocational school’s benefits, as well as pertinent information regarding education costs, career profitability and employment rates.

Trade School vs. College: What’s the Difference?

Both trade school and traditional college educations can reap rewards for their graduates, but they differ in many areas, including fields of study, price tag, program length and even the types of learners they attract.

Trade school students can expect to spend about two years on a degree or less on an accelerated track or for a certificate. The cost of a trade school education will vary widely but is less expensive overall than a four-year degree, with the national average net price of a two-year education at a public institution sitting at $7,351 per year. Fields of study include subjects ranging from automotive service technology and bookkeeping to web design, management and practical nursing.

Traditional colleges and universities take four years, more or less, for completion of a bachelor’s degree. The national net price average for a four-year public college is $12,272 per year. That’s almost $5,000 per year over the cost of trade school, amounting to an average total difference in public higher education net price of more than $34,000. Fields of study include subjects such as journalism, biology, engineering and computer science.

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.

Cost and ROI of Vocational vs. College Educations

Find a sampling of careers, salary potential and a cost comparison of trade versus traditional college schooling, with trade school tuition ranges listed first.

Expected salary: $39,550

Job opportunity in 2016: 749,900 positions

Growth rate: six percent

Cost of school versus college degree: $8,000–$25,000; $15,000–$35,000

(LPN vocational, RN bachelor’s)

Expected salary: LPN $45,030; RN $70,000

Job opportunity: LPN 724,500; RN 2,955,200 positions

Growth rate: LPN 12 percent; RN 15 percent

Cost of school versus college degree: LPN $10,000–$23,000; RN $15,000–$67,000

Expected salary: $39,240

Job opportunity: 1,730,500 positions

Growth rate: -one percent

Cost of school versus college degree: $5,000–$28,000; $21,000–$60,000

Expected salary: $59,090

Job opportunity: 105,100 positions

Growth rate: 10 percent

Cost of school versus college degree: $9,000–$18,000; $16,000–$60,000

According to the College Affordability and Transparency Center, the following were the average net price during the 2016–17 school year based on each category:

  • Public four-year—$12,272
  • Private not-for-profit, four-year—$21,778
  • Private for-profit, four-year—$21,344
  • Public two-year—$7,351
  • Private not-for-profit, two-year—$18,487
  • Private for-profit, two-year—$20,639
  • Public, less than two years—$10,369
  • Private for-profit, less than two years—$16.622
  • Private not-for-profit, less than two years—$18,233

Is Trade School Right for You?

By asking questions, prospective students will be able to choose between trade school and a traditional two- or four-year college to best prepare themselves for their career of choice. Trade school can be much cheaper than college overall and sets its students up for almost immediate employment, but those interested in this type of schooling still have many other factors to consider. Start with the questions below, then do a little research to answer the questions as they apply to the individual student and field of interest.

  1. How long will it take for a trade school student to obtain a job from the start of vocational school versus the length of time it would take for a four-year college student?
  2. What is the cost-benefit of a shorter, more specific vocational education?
  3. Does a cheaper trade school education transition to a lower-paying job than a more expensive school?
  4. What kind of internships, assistantships or other on-the-job training positions might a technical school offer its students?
  5. Will employers accept vocational education as indication of preparation for the job, or do they require or prefer something in addition, like a license?
  6. Will trade school study prepare students for licensure or certification for their job of choice?
  7. How much of the education in this subject can be completed online, and how much is required to be hands-on experience?
  8. If a student is unsure about a career in his or her selected field of study, would it be easy to go back to school later to fine-tune or switch subjects, and would earned credits, degrees and certifications be recognized by two- or four-year colleges?
  9. Will hands-on learners perform better in a trade school environment instead of a strict academic classroom?
  10. Will employers in this field be more likely to hire someone with a related certificate and hands-on experience or someone with a degree in the subject?

Additional Reading & Resources

Further information on trade schools and comparing their schooling with college education comes from a variety of sources, including the Department of Education, a vocational school and a source that serves as a guide to realizing a specialized career goal. The first two resources provide an abundance of links to more specific, field-related organizations and publications. Other additional readings compare vocational and trade schools in a number of ways, and another source outlines how trade school can be an achievable and beneficial objective for military veterans.

  • Career and Technical Education Related Links: The U.S. Department of Education’s OCTAE, or Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education, provides a thorough list of technical education centers and organizations, as well as related associations, resources, journals and periodicals. These resources cover subjects ranging from tech-prep leadership to the Bureau of Labor Statistics to the Journal of Workplace Learning.
  • Career and Technical Student Organizations: The U.S. Department of Education’s OCTAE has compiled a list of career and technical student organizations, including but not limited to the Technology Student Association for any level technology education student; SkillsUSA, which serves high school students and above enrolled in tech, skilled or service job fields; and the National Future Farmers of America (FFA), which assists in professional skills and career development in agriculture.
  • Vocational & Trade School: A Guide to Non-degree Education. The Learn How to Become website outlines the types of careers available with just a career and technical education and details how many people occupy each job position and the rate of growth, ranked. In addition, find seven outlets through which a technical education can be earned and a side-by-side pros-and-cons list assessing vocational schooling.
  • Trade School versus. College: Which Should I Choose? The Advanced Technology Institute dives a little further into the cost-analysis of obtaining a trade school education over a college degree, citing median earnings for degree earners versus the skyrocketing tuition, the demand for service jobs such as auto mechanics and the inability to outsource these types of jobs as reasons to choose vocational schooling.
  • After the Service: Trade Schools & Veterans. This article on Accredited Schools Online, written by and with expert information from two military veterans, goes into great detail on the transferable skills that veterans have under their belt. The skills are divided by branch of the military and job type and the careers to which these can lead. The article also notes how veterans can use the GI Bill toward their education, which includes apprenticeships, non-college learning through vocational schools, distance learning and licensing and certification, among others.

James Cordova, Automotive Service Technology Department Chair at Pueblo Community College in Pueblo, Colo., has worked for the college for about 15 years. He is a graduate of this same automotive technology program at PCC.