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Trade School vs. College: Which One Is Right for You?

Last Updated January 28, 2022

Choosing a post-secondary program often means deciding on trade school vs. college for your training. But what is a trade school, exactly, and why is this training route a better fit for many aspiring professionals? Are trade schools a good alternative when it comes to what you can do instead of college to prepare for the career you want?

Trade schools are privately-owned institutions that teach skills and abilities directly related to the occupation you want, offering a faster track to graduation. These titles of these types of schools may pair trade, vocational, technical, or career with school, college, university, institute, or training center.*

Traditional public colleges and universities offer a broader scope of learning, requiring a certain amount of coursework in a variety of areas in addition to the subject a student is studying.

As we explore the difference between trade schools and colleges, ask yourself which parts will matter to you the most. Someone who wants to pursue a welding certificate will likely have very different criteria for the school they attend than someone looking to earn a degree in philosophy. A student with young children will probably value schedule flexibility more than a recent grad living at home. Knowing what you value the most about your education is key to choosing the right school for your individual needs.

Get started by exploring these common and important questions that many people like you ask themselves when they begin their career training and academic journeys:

*For the purposes of this article, we will use various titles that represent the diversity among private occupational training institutions. Titles may include trade/vocational/career/technical and school/college/university/training center/institute.

Is Post-Secondary Education Really Worth It?

One study looked at the employment rates of young adult workers with various education levels, and the results show employment rates rise substantially with each level of education. And the benefits don't end there. The same correlation was found with earnings.

Education Level Employment Rate Median Salary
Some high school 57% $29,300
High school diploma 69% $35,000
Some college 78% $40,000
Bachelor's degree or higher 86% $55,700

It is important to acknowledge that there are costs associated with going to school. A 2014 Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco report says that, on average, college graduates who pay tuition of approximately $20,000 per year will recover their schooling costs by the time they turn 40 years old. Once those costs are recovered, college graduates stand to earn approximately $800,000 more over their lifetimes than individuals who only completed high school. So, along with rates of employment, earning levels also increase with the level of education achieved.

And when it comes to salary, your major (or field of study) matters a lot.

A Georgetown University study found that the annual median earnings of college grads who majored in health disciplines were $12,000 higher than those of grads who majored in arts, humanities, and liberal arts. And when comparing mid-career college grads, the annual median earnings of those who majored in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects were $25,000 higher than the earnings of graduates who majored in arts, humanities, and liberal arts. The earnings of business majors were $16,000 higher, and the earnings of health majors were $14,000 higher.

Post-secondary education does have a substantial positive impact on both your short- and long-term earnings, as well as on your employment rate. And the field of study that you choose is possibly even more important.

How Much Do Trade Schools Cost Compared to Traditional College or University?

Young woman with curly hair holding a coffee cup and a tablet in a brightly lit office with colleagues working in the background.Above, we talked about the differences in earnings among the different levels of education. Although it seems like graduates of traditional colleges and universities are further ahead, these students also typically pay a lot more tuition. Let's look at the difference in total tuition cost between 2 and 4-year degrees at both public and private institutions:

  • Public (non-profit community colleges, state universities, etc.)
    • 2-year associate degree cost: $34,588
    • 4-year bachelor's degree cost: $148,800
  • Private (for-profit trade schools, vocational colleges, etc.)
    • 2-year associate degree cost: $31,948
    • 4-year bachelor's degree: $53,900

Keep in mind that those amounts do not factor in living expenses or student loan interest. Still, these expenses are often quite a bit less for vocational school students than for college students.

It's also helpful to remember that federal student aid and other financial aid options should be available to you, as long as the school you attend has proper accreditation.

The differences in the cost of technical school vs. college degree programs are not cut and dry. But there are instances in which trade schools can save you money, get you back into the workforce quickly, and prepare you for good-paying jobs.

Are There Other Differences Between Trade Schools and Colleges?

First, it's essential to address how we talk about post-secondary schooling. The terms "college" and "university" are not reserved for traditional academic institutions. Trade schools can also be called colleges and universities, so the most significant difference comes down to whether the school is publicly or privately funded (non-profit vs. for-profit) and geared toward academic degrees or vocational training.

Colleges and trade schools both provide the opportunity to gain pertinent knowledge and abilities. However, they typically have different approaches and formats. Some of the key differences are highlighted here with more details below:

Vocational Schools Traditional Colleges and Universities
Program Content Courses specific to area of study Specific courses plus general education requirements in other subjects
Outcomes Certificate, diploma, associate, and bachelor's degrees Associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees
Class Size Usually less than 30 students per class Classes vary in size, but are generally much larger in capacity
Training Extensive hands-on learning component plus classroom instruction More focused on classroom learning, with some practical training
Externship Generally included as a part of the program May be offered depending on school and program

Program content:

Four-year bachelor's degree programs include general education classes that are not related to your chosen career field. For example, if you are earning an engineering degree at a traditional college, you will take classes in areas like communication, language, and humanities.

Vocational schools typically do not include general education classes not directly related to your chosen career field. Focusing on highly related topics results in completing your training in substantially less time.


Vocational schools mostly offer certificate, diploma, and associate degree programs that typically take anywhere from a few months to two years to complete. Some vocational schools offer bachelor's degree programs, but they can usually be completed in less than four years. Depending on the type of vocational degree you pursue, the credits you earn may transfer to a higher degree program at a traditional college so you can continue your education.

Traditional colleges and universities focus on bachelor's, master's, doctorate, and other postgraduate programs. Once you spend four years achieving your bachelor's degree, you can expect to spend approximately two more years for each additional postgraduate degree.

Class sizes:

You have likely seen the movies with the massive lecture halls that hold hundreds of students. Those lecture halls are a reality at many traditional colleges and universities, and it is unlikely that your instructor will know you by name.

Vocational schools, on the other hand, often pride themselves on their small class sizes. A classroom with more than 30 students would be uncommon. A smaller ratio of students to teachers is great if you would like to get to know your instructor and receive personal attention.

Hands-on training:

Another point of pride for many trade schools is the focus on hands-on training. Many career colleges are equipped with impressive labs and clinics where you get to practice skills in settings that reflect the scenarios you might face in your job. And depending on your field of study, your vocational school may have clinics that are open to the public. For example, hairdressing, dental assisting, cooking, and massage schools often operate on-site facilities where students can offer services to the public. Having this experience could better prepare you to enter your occupational field from the entry level. And while you might find some hands-on training opportunities with traditional colleges, the focus of those institutions is often more academic.


Many vocational schools build externships into their programs, which is one more way to receive relevant industry-focused training. An externship is essentially a placement with a company or organization where you may job shadow and perform the duties of a person in the position for which you are training. Some traditional colleges may offer externship opportunities, but they are usually in addition to your regular schooling.

Employer connections:

It is common for trade schools to have relationships with many local employers. By maintaining an extensive employer network, your school can make it easier for you to enter the job market and help you find a position after graduation. Many employers recruit new hires directly from career colleges because it makes the hiring process more seamless.

Job security:

The types of jobs that vocational schools can help prepare you for are often in high demand and have less chance of being relocated overseas. Many trade schools focus on offering programs for in-demand careers and helping students quickly enter the workforce. Those schools must stay attuned to the job market to ensure they are offering the most relevant training. Trade schools also tend to train people for more hands-on occupations—like electrician, chef, and nurse—that can't be done from overseas. So, they can offer greater job security.

Where Do Community Colleges Fit Into This Mix?

Community colleges, also called junior colleges, are commonly used as a gateway to traditional degree-granting colleges and universities. Students who want to pursue four-year college degrees may choose to complete their first two years at a community college. This option often saves students money, and their community college may be closer to home. Community college can be a good option if trade school is not a fit and you don't want to attend a traditional four-year college or university.

How Do I Know If Trade School Is Right for Me?

Deciding which educational path is right for you can be difficult. Making this decision might come down to your career goals, finances, and learning style. Certain career paths will require a four-year college degree, or even a master's or doctorate. But other career paths will not. In those cases, it may be in your best interest to skip traditional college and head to a vocational school instead. To further guide your decision-making, see if you relate to any of the statements below:

Two young female students walking and talking on a campus path with backpacks
  • You have been out of high school for several years. For many adults who have been out of school for several years, the thought of attending a four-year college can be daunting. Attending a focused, hands-on vocational school that can get you back into the workforce quickly may be a lot more appealing.
  • You are making a mid-life career change. If you are making a mid-career change, attending a four-year college may not be an ideal option for you. However, a vocational school may credit some of your previous education or relevant work experience. So, you might be able to complete your training and begin your new career even sooner than you expected.
  • You have a very specific career path in mind. If you know exactly which career you want to pursue, and it is one that you can prepare for at a career college, you may want to train at a vocational school. For example, if you want to become a plumber, nurse, graphic designer, or chef, you might choose to attend a trade school.
  • You need flexibility. You might have a job that you cannot afford to quit. You might have kids. You might be caring for a sick family member. Life can be complex, and you could have responsibilities that make it seem like attending college is just not feasible. But many vocational schools understand the needs of mature students. As a result, they can offer you flexible scheduling. You could find options like evening, weekend, and online classes that can make the reality of attending school much easier than you imagined.
  • You want to expand your skills within your current career field. Are you already working in an area that you enjoy and want to gain additional skills to advance your career? A trade school may be able to help you do this more quickly than a traditional college. For example, suppose you currently work as a patient care technician and want to become a practical nurse. Depending on your prior education, you could complete training for this goal at a career college in as little as a year.
  • You have already earned a four-year college degree and are experiencing difficulty finding a job within your field of study. Suppose you have invested in a four-year degree and have not achieved the results that you hoped for. It could be practical for you to quickly train at a vocational school to limit additional costs and time out of the workforce. And you may even be able to transfer credits from your previous degree program.

What Kinds of Jobs Can I Prepare for in Vocational School?

You may be wondering if there are different types of trade schools. The answer is yes. Some vocational schools specialize in one specific career area, whereas others offer more program variety. The different areas that vocational schools tend to focus on include:

  • Automotive
  • Beauty
  • Business
  • Culinary Arts
  • Design & Arts
  • Healthcare
  • Legal & Criminal Justice
  • Media Arts
  • Technology
  • Travel & Hospitality
  • Skilled Trades
  • Social Sciences

It may also surprise you to learn that some of the fastest-growing jobs in the country can be achieved with vocational school education. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), the following jobs are projected to grow by more than 30 percent from 2020 to 2030.

  • Wind turbine service technician:
    • Job growth: 68%
    • Median salary: $56,230
  • Solar photovoltaic installer:
    • Job growth: 52%
    • Median salary: $46,470
  • Exercise trainers and group fitness instructors:
    • Job growth: 39%
    • Median salary: $40,510
  • Makeup artist (theatrical and performance):
    • Job growth: 37%
    • Median salary: $106,920
  • Occupational therapy assistant:
    • Job growth: 36%
    • Median salary: $62,940
  • Physical therapist assistant:
    • Job growth: 35%
    • Median salary: $59,770
  • Animal care and service worker:
    • Job growth: 34%
    • Median salary: $26,080
  • Information security analyst:
    • Job growth: 33%
    • Median salary: $103,590
  • Film and video editor:
    • Job growth: 33%
    • Median salary: $67,250

Trade school jobs can be some of the best paying. A bachelor's degree that takes four years at a traditional college can often be completed in three years at a vocational school because the programs are more focused and streamlined. Some of the high-paying jobs that typically require a bachelor's degree—and that you can prepare for at a career college—include the following:

  • Medical and health services manager
  • Computer network architect
  • Software developer
  • Construction manager
  • Electrical engineer
  • Database administrator
  • Mechanical engineer
  • Network and computer systems administrator
  • Film and video editor
  • Accountant
  • Registered nurse
  • Market research analyst or marketing specialist
  • Public relations specialist
  • Human resources specialist
  • Dietitian or nutritionist

So, when you are debating technical school vs. college, you can see that your vocational training options may not be as limited as you initially believed. You can prepare for a promising career at a trade school. And government and business leaders are starting to recognize this. In fact, they are starting to turn to the country's vocational schools to help close the growing skills gap across the nation.

For example, JPMorgan Chase's New Skills at Work project is a five-year, $350-million global initiative designed to help close the nation's and the world's skills gap. The project aims to identify the needs of local employers and then support related skills training for workers. It helps employers find qualified candidates while putting workers on in-demand, good-paying career paths.

JPMorgan Chase's research found that many employers report that it is hardest to fill middle-skill jobs, which are jobs that require some training, but not necessarily a four-year degree. In other words, middle-skills jobs are exactly what vocational schools tend to offer training for.

How Do I Know If a School Is Reputable?

Smiling bearded man in glasses and plaid shirt sitting at desk with computer monitors displaying graphsWhether you are looking at vocational schools, community colleges, or traditional degree-granting colleges and universities, it is wise to do your research before enrolling. Here are some key things to look for:

  • Accreditation
  • Licensure (for specific careers/skills training, such as nursing)
  • Graduation rate
  • Job placement rate
  • Online reviews, good and bad (which can be found by looking at the Better Business Bureau, Facebook pages, and other online sources)

Looking at these factors can give you an idea of what kind of reputation a school has and whether a specific school can help you achieve your education and career goals.

Find Out What Programs and Vocational Schools Are Near You

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