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

Real life starts after high school — or at least, professional life does. But while college may seem like the inevitable next step after your high school diploma, you shouldn’t be blinded to the alternatives.

College allows you to explore a wide range of options, and also boasts extracurriculars, fraternities, and sororities. On the other hand, trade school offers skill-based learning with solid job opportunities — and significantly less debt than a college degree.

Ultimately, the objective of both is to offer quality education and help you land a future career. So which of the two should you choose: the brick and mortar college, or the new-age trade school?

Here are a few things to consider before making your decision.

College vs. Trade School: Admissions Process

The typical student starts considering colleges shortly after their freshman year. But applying to universities can be stressful, and admission to a top-tier college is competitive. For example, Brown University received over 30,000 applications in 2019 and only admitted 8.6 percent (2,580 candidates).

Getting into a good college requires high SAT scores, volunteer service projects, and an expansive portfolio of extra-curricular activities. And even then, that’s often not enough for Ivy Leagues.

In comparison, the admissions process for trade schools is relatively uncomplicated. You can forget cramming for your SAT/ACT, and you don’t have to compete with thousands of applicants to secure a seat. Instead, you can produce your high school diploma and sign up for the next available program. 

College vs. Trade School: Credentials

A traditional college offers a four-year Bachelor’s degree, followed by an optional Master’s degree, and ends with a shiny diploma or two hanging on your wall. Plus, all those people that you study and party with in college are ideal for forming your career network later.

Meanwhile, trade schools offer certificates or diplomas that aren’t equivalent to college degrees but are sufficient to get a job within a profession that recognizes the certification. Some trade schools also provide apprenticeships to students. This ensures you already have some experience in your field when you complete your training.

College vs. Trade School: Duration

An undergraduate degree usually takes four years of study. This means that if you start college after high school, you won’t start working until you are at least 22. If you follow up with a graduate program it can take even longer. The length of a college degree can cut a few years off your professional life with no guarantee you’ll even get a job in your field at the end.

On the other hand, trade schools take about half as much time to complete the program. They are generally intensive courses that can be completed in one to two years. Students can expect to receive hands-on experience, which is ideal for joining the workforce soon after.

College vs. Trade School: Cost

It’s no secret that college is expensive. And not just in tuition fees: the cost of maintaining a decent lifestyle during your college years can bleed you dry. In fact, student loan debt in the US skyrocketed to $1.56 trillion in 2020, with students of the Class of 2019 averaging $28,950 in student loan debt.

After final exams, graduates often have loan repayments looking over their shoulders and sometimes can’t save a penny. Even after spending thousands of dollars on a Bachelor’s degree, there’s no guarantee you will land the job of your dreams — despite still needing to make your repayments.

Of course, if you’re biting your nails seeing those numbers, don’t let the potential costs stop you from getting a college degree. There’s always financial aid, scholarships, loans, and grants.

Students considering vocational training aren’t left out either, with trade organizations and state governments also now stepping up to offer funding options to students. 

College vs. Trade School: Earning Potential 

Do college graduates earn more? The quick answer is yes. College gives you a broad range of skills, so once you graduate, you have several opportunities ahead. On average, college graduates earn around $50,000 a year in their first job out of college, which is significantly more compared to the salaries of non-college graduates. Additionally, a lot of these high-paying jobs also provide other perks like health care, maternity leaves, retirement benefits, and so on.  

However, trade schools allow you to start working sooner thanks to the shorter length of their programs which means you can start earning money sooner. What’s more, trade schools can also offer some impressively high-paying jobs. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for construction managers in 2019 was $95,260 per year. Meanwhile, radiation therapists earned $85,560 per year, and dental hygienists cashed in $76,220 annually.

College vs. Trade School: Job Security

One major advantage of a trade school is that a lot of jobs you’ll get from a vocational degree cannot be outsourced. For instance, automotive technician jobs cannot be sent offshore because it’s manual labor. The same applies to professions like chefs, electricians, and plumbers. 

Meanwhile, college degrees are often misconceived as a one-way ticket to job security. Jobs like tech or insurance have been outsourced for years, and even jobs in healthcare, finance, and teaching are no longer safe

College vs. Trade School: Soft Life Skills

While it is important to focus on your GPA, it doesn’t hurt to develop additional life skills that might help you later. Employers want to know whether you have a positive attitude, a strong work ethic, and problem-solving skills.

This is where college shines. In college, you can easily build these soft skills: take an extra class you like, engage in college events, and make friends from different cultures. However, make sure to consider whether you really need the extra credits and courses later in life, so you’re not wasting your time. 

Trade schools, on the other hand, offer short, vocation-specific courses. They polish and prepare students for the industry. Unlike colleges, trade schools do not focus on character-building activities. The programs are cut out to prepare you for the real world. It’s a one-track pursuit to find the right job.


Trade school or college, what matters is your experience and passion for your job. Carefully consider the elements above before making your decision — but remember, you can always change professions later!