Your Guide to Trade School Vs. College

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September 23, 2021

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Pursuing a postsecondary education requires prospective students to consider their personal interests and skills, the projected costs, and their career goals. For many individuals, trade school provides a viable alternative to a traditional community college or university, offering rapid preparation for employment.

Across the country, skilled trade workers are in high demand. This demand has also driven the growth of U.S. trade schools. For example, Perry Tech — in central Washington state — has added seven new programs and watched student enrollment more than double over the last 12 years.

If you are interested in a short-term, hands-on education for an in-demand career, read on to learn more about what trade schools have to offer.


What Is Trade School?

Like colleges and universities, trade schools are postsecondary institutions that prepare students to enter the workforce. Trade schools may also be referred to as vocational schools, technical schools, or vocational colleges.

Learners looking for a fast route to steady employment can benefit immensely from attending trade school. Unlike a traditional liberal arts college program, trade programs focus narrowly on occupation-specific skills required for employment. Students can pursue trade school programs in a variety of disciplines, including high-demand, lucrative fields like plumbing, automotive technology, electricity, and welding.

Trade School Program Overview

Trade schools offer more opportunities than you may expect. Common trades include welding, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), cosmetology, and truck driving, but trade schools can also prepare you to work as a pharmacy technician, EMT-paramedic, office support specialist, or accounting assistant. Additionally, programs are available in many different industries, like business, healthcare, information technology, criminal justice, and agriculture.

Trade school programs provide a streamlined combination of classroom learning and hands-on instruction designed to develop a specific skill set.

Vocational and trade schools provide students the short-term, hands-on training required to obtain entry-level employment or paid apprenticeships. Depending on the occupation you pursue, programs may result in a technical diploma or certificate. They may require a few months to a year to complete. In some cases, trade school students earn their associate degree, which requires two years of study.

On average, students pay $5,000-$15,000 to attend trade school. However, total costs vary depending on the institution and program you select and whether you pay in-state or out-of-state tuition. Shorter programs tend to be less expensive, although longer programs may prepare you for more lucrative careers, making the investment worthwhile.

Unlike universities, trade schools offer a relatively simple admissions process. A high school diploma or GED certificate is generally required, but applicants do not need to submit test scores, essays, or letters of recommendation.

Trade school programs provide a streamlined combination of classroom learning and hands-on instruction designed to develop a specific skill set. Like all higher education institutions, trade schools expect students to attend class regularly, progress through material in a timely manner, and earn satisfactory grades.

Trade School vs. Four-year College

Among the key differences between trade schools and four-year colleges include cost, program curriculum and length, and the applicability to different career goals.

For instance, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that one year of tuition, fees, and room and board at a four-year college costs $27,357 (for the 2017-2018 school year). Alternatively, the average cost for an entire trade school program is $5,000-$15,000. The difference in affordability is clear.

Students who follow a traditional, four-year college route spend longer in school than trade students and work through a broad curriculum that touches on many different subjects. The traditional college learning style relies heavily on textbooks, lectures, essays, and presentations. By comparison, trade schools offer a more focused, skills-based curriculum that relies on hands-on learning.

The broad curriculum of a college degree provides students with flexibility in their career pursuits. For example, an English degree can be applied to careers in education, marketing, journalism, or creative industries. Alternatively, trade school graduates are prepared for a single occupation.

Trade School vs. Community College

The terms "community college" and "trade school" are often used interchangeably. While it is true that many community colleges do offer vocational, career, and trade programs, not all trade schools are community colleges.

Like four-year colleges and universities, two-year community colleges typically focus on lecture-based, theoretical learning. Alternatively, trade schools offer hands-on, apprenticeship-style education.

Some graduates of a two-year community college program are prepared for entry-level opportunities, but many others must transfer to a university to complete a bachelor's degree before pursuing employment. By comparison, trade school graduates can enter the workforce immediately.

What Jobs Are Well-suited to Trade Schools?

Jobs that are well-suited to trade schools include those in the fields of maintenance, repair, and installation. Trade schools also provide training for select occupations in healthcare, information technology, and transportation. Some of the most common trade school career paths include:

Cosmetologists Dental assistants Electricians Licensed practical nurses Plumbers Tractor-trailer truck drivers

The hands-on, on-site work performed by electricians, plumbers, practical nurses, and other trade workers cannot be easily outsourced. Therefore, trade school jobs traditionally offer a high level of employment security.

This consistent demand also provides high earning potentials for the most successful trade professionals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), plumbers and electricians earn median salaries around $54,000-$55,000, with top earners bringing home upwards of $94,000. Dental assistants and licensed practical nurses earn median salaries of $38,660 and $46,240, respectively.

Trade job growth varies by occupation and location. For instance, the BLS projects wind turbine technicians to experience an impressive nationwide growth of 57% between 2018-2028. Due to the current small size of the field, however, job openings may remain in a relatively limited supply compared to large, well-established fields like plumbing.


What Are the Advantages of Trade School?

For the right student with the right career goals, choosing to enroll in trade school provides a host of advantages over a traditional college program. Some of the biggest benefits for trade school students include relevant, targeted education; shorter program completion times; and overall affordability.

The key advantage of a trade school education is the focused curriculum format. Trade school programs do not require general education classes, electives, or a liberal arts core. On the very first day, students prepare for a career in the field of their choice.

Compared to associate and bachelor's pathways, non-degree-granting trade school programs are brief; they typically last a few months to a year. Depending on the school, trade program tuition can also be much more affordable, meaning students graduate faster and with less debt than they would have accrued at a community college or university.

To meet the needs of individuals juggling work, school, and/or family obligations, trade schools often provide flexible learning options, such as part-time enrollment or evening classes.

Trade schools prepare graduates for in-demand work and increase graduates' likelihood of good pay and long-lasting job security.

What Are the Disadvantages of Trade School?

Although plumbing, dental assisting, and practical nursing programs provide an affordable, accelerated pathway to steady employment, trade school is not without its disadvantages.

Compared to a university, trade schools usually offer limited student support resources. For example, trade schools may or may not have career, tutoring, or counseling services. Library collections may be limited in size and scope. Additionally, students are expected to take initiative and solve problems as they learn.

Similarly, trade schools rarely offer student life activities like on-campus housing, sports, clubs, and other extracurriculars. A lack of engagement opportunities may disappoint students looking for a more traditional college experience.

Finally, although careers obtained through trade school provide solid job security and decent pay, they often lack upward mobility opportunities. To advance their career prospects, trade school graduates may need to pursue a higher level of education.

For example, dental assistants interested in becoming dental hygienists must obtain an associate degree and state licensure. Making this career change can lead to an increased salary — the median pay for dental hygienists is nearly $75,000, according to the BLS — but dental hygiene programs usually take three years to complete.

Is Trade School Right for You?

For many individuals, trade school is a viable alternative to attending community college or pursuing a four-year degree.

Trade school students commonly possess interests and skills that fall outside the bounds of a traditional college program. They may prefer the idea of traveling to various work sites rather than sitting in the same office every day. Similarly, the challenges and accomplishments of hands-on work may hold more appeal than pushing paper.

Trade workers must make judgement calls, take initiative, and be prepared to handle the unexpected.

Other prospective trade school students are simply looking for a short path to a steady job and good pay. Trade schools provide affordable, short-term training programs that prepare graduates for immediate entry-level employment and/or paid apprenticeships. Trade jobs typically offer good job security and median yearly salaries of $38,000-$55,000.

Professionals who already work in a trade occupation may decide to enroll in a formal program to increase their skills and earning potential or switch to a new trade.

Despite these benefits, trade school and the resulting careers are not for everyone. Working a trade job can be physically and mentally taxing, with exposure to the elements, odd work hours, frequent travel, and potentially hazardous situations. Trade workers must make judgement calls, take initiative, and be prepared to handle the unexpected.

The president confirmed free community college had been scrapped from his Build Back Better plan and proposed an increase in Pell Grant payments instead. Trade education is on the rise. Colleges should embrace transferrable and stackable credentials so students can transition easily between educational paths. Discover the strategies college students with disabilities can use to determine a career path, search for a job, and navigate barriers to employment.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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