Wednesday, February 28, 2024

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

Learn before you earn.

Attending college may seem like the inevitable next step after securing a high school diploma, but trade school is another pathway to a rewarding career. 

While both options offer quality education and can help you land your dream job, you may be wondering: “What’s the difference?” 🤔

College offers a well-rounded education through varied courses and extracurriculars like sports and Greek life — typically packaged at a higher cost.

On the other hand, trade school trains students through specific skill-based learning and usually results in significantly less debt than a college degree. 💸

Before you commit to one or the other, you need to assess the trade school vs college pros and cons. 🧐

A male high school senior decides between attending college vs trade school
When deciding between attending trade school vs college, think about your target career and consult with your school counselor to gain more insight. Photo: stockking/Freepik

College vs Trade School: Admissions Process 🏫

Whether you want to become Silicon Valley’s next big tech entrepreneur, work in construction, or simply get rich as quickly as you can, preparing early in high school (we’re talking freshman year) can get you ahead in college admissions. ⬆️

This is useful to remember since a top-tier college typically has highly competitive application and admission processes. For example, Brown University received over 35,000 applications in 2022 and only admitted 7.2 percent (a total of 2,566 candidates). 😲

Two smiling Caucasian female high school graduates holding their diplomas
Undecided between attending a trade school or college? Start by getting the universal admission requirement ready: a high school diploma. Photo: Freepik

A good college requires high SAT scores, recommendation letters from teachers or counselors, and an expansive portfolio of extracurricular activities. 📂 And even then, that’s often not enough for Ivy Leagues.

READ MORE: How to Apply to College: 9 Steps to Application Success

In comparison, the admissions process for trade schools is relatively uncomplicated. You can forget cramming for your SAT/ACT or competing with thousands of other talented applicants to secure a spot. 

A high school diploma or a GED certificate is enough to get you into a trade school program, like Midwest Technical Institute which has a 100 percent acceptance rate. 👍

College vs Trade School: Credentials 📜

An Asian female fresh college graduate typing on her laptop in the office as part of her first job
College graduates normally aim for professional jobs that require a bachelor’s degree, such as accountants, doctors, or lawyers. Photo: drobotdean/Freepik

Students who complete a traditional college or university course graduate with a bachelor’s degree, which is necessary to apply for jobs or pursue higher education. 📃

This degree represents not only your major, but the lessons and connections you gained from classes and extracurricular activities. Students with this background typically have a higher chance of working white-collar jobs. 🧑‍💻

A smiling Caucasian male HVAC technician wearing a green cap and plaid polo at work
Trade school graduates can start earning earlier and eventually become well-paid professionals in their field, such as HVAC technicians, electricians, and construction managers. Photo: senivpetro/Freepik

Meanwhile, accredited trade schools offer diplomas or certificates that are sufficient to get a job within a specific profession. 🧰

Some trade schools also provide apprenticeships to add experience in your field, which is a common requirement for roles as electricians or plumbers. 

ℹ️ Quick info on trade school vs community college:

Finishing trade school awards you a diploma or an industry-relevant certification that confirms you’re qualified to do a specific skill. But, it is not equivalent to an undergraduate associate degree from a community college.

An associate degree is what you get for completing a two-year undergraduate program training you with a wide set of skills and character-building activities. 🧑‍🎓

However, you can also consider technical colleges that provide skill-based certificates and associate degrees for careers like radiation therapists or dental hygienists.

College vs Trade School: Duration 🕝

Obtaining a bachelor’s 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 about 22 years old. 📚

Of course, pursuing a graduate program will take you even longer with no guarantee of a job in your field.

An Asian male high school graduate deciding between attending college vs trade school after reading resources in the school library
When choosing between a trade school or college, ask yourself: do you wish to earn cash as soon as possible or can you wait a little longer and finish college first? Photo: jcomp/Freepik

On the other hand, earning a trade school certification takes less time and less money. Full-time trade school students can graduate within three months to one year, depending on the chosen program. 📅 

Good to know: The shortest trade school program duration is Commercial Truck Driving which can be completed within one to three months.

Plus, studying for a shorter period of time can be the antidote to academic stress — which we know contributes to poor performance and eventual dropouts

With your certification in hand, you can start working and earning earlier than your college-studying peers. 👍 

College vs Trade School: Cost 💸

It’s no secret that college is expensive. Aside from tuition fees, the cost of maintaining a decent lifestyle during college can put a serious dent in your savings. 😟

In fact, total federal and private student loan debts in the US skyrocketed to $1.76 trillion in 2022, with the average student loan debt standing at $28,950.

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 loan repayments. 😞

READ MORE: 11 Things to Know About Student Loans Before Going Into Debt

A male college student bows his head in frustration after calculating his student debts
College can be financially draining, so consider taking up multiple side hustles to help you pay for college. Photo: jcomp/Freepik

The average cost of going to college is $36,436 per year, but the overall cost may rack up to a whopping $500,000 (typically based on related expenses, such as student loan debt with interest and income loss while job hunting). 😟 

Meanwhile, trade school programs cost a fraction of getting a bachelor’s degree, along with giving you a headstart when it comes to earning income. ✅ 

Trade school students spend around $3,900 to $18,000 while studying in two-year institutions, plus their lodging and other expenses.

A shorter time spent in trade school also means a reduced cost of attendance: so say goodbye to prolonged payment for tuition, course materials, and miscellaneous fees. 👋

There are always financial aid or scholarships and grants to help you, with private organizations and state governments offering funding options to students. 🥳

TIP: The FAFSA isn’t just for college students! Check if the accredited trade school you’re eyeing allows its students to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

College vs Trade School: Earning Potential 🤑

A smiling Asian male fresh college graduate giving a thumbs up review of his first job's salary
Thinking about the difference between trade school vs college salary? The answer depends on factors like the work location and the demand rate of your degree or skill. Photo: lookstudio/Freepik

There’s no right answer on which of these options gets you a higher return on investment. How much you’ll earn greatly depends on industry demands, whether you went to college or trade school. 

As per the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, fresh college graduates earn an annual median salary of $52,000 which is significantly higher than the wages of non-degree holders (or high school graduates who may not have pursued postsecondary education) amounting to $34,320.💰 Computer science majors are among those well-paid with a median yearly salary of $97,430.

READ MORE: 25 Best Computer Science Colleges to Get You Tech Success

These high-paying jobs also provide other perks like health care, parental leave, retirement benefits, and so on.  

On the flip side, trade school salaries can actually be higher than people expect. 🤔 DataUSA reports an average salary of $51,899 for those who completed trade school programs. 🤑

Take a look at these figures for high-earning trade school graduates: electricians earn an annual median wage of $60,040 while elevator and escalator installers and repairers get an annual median pay of $97,860. 😲

A table comparing five college vs trade school jobs and their salaries based on the US Bureau of Labor Statistics
A table comparing five college vs trade school jobs and their salaries based on the US Bureau of Labor Statistics

College vs Trade School: Job Security 🔐

Job security is linked to the usefulness of your services, thereby jobs in high or constant demand have better chances of weathering economic issues. 

Trade school careers fare better in this category because people need their services all the time and they usually cannot be outsourced. For instance, chefs need to work on-site to whip up meals while car mechanics must be physically present to check and fix vehicles. ⚙️ 

A smiling male automotive mechanic working on a car engine based on his training from trade school
Graduating from a trade school to do manual labor jobs may be physically demanding, but your role is less likely to be outsourced, especially in service-based industries. Photo: standret/Freepik

While a college degree equips you with transferable skills applicable to a wider range of positions, it’s not a guaranteed one-way ticket to job security. 

That’s because tech or insurance jobs have been outsourced for years, and even jobs in healthcare, finance, and teaching are no longer safe due to budget cuts. 💸

Still, the digital age has upped the demand for certain types of jobs for fresh college graduates, such as software engineers and SEO professionals. 

So, check the state of your preferred career industry before you invest time and money in either college or trade school. ✅

College vs Trade School: Soft Skills 🤝

While academic certifications increase your chances of getting a good-paying job, developing soft skills can spell higher success in the workplace. After all, employers want to know whether you work well with others, display a strong work ethic, and have critical problem-solving skills.

A happy group of college students from diverse nationalities hanging out on their outdoor school grounds
Getting along with college students from different backgrounds can widen your network and hone your socialization skills — essential factors in career success. Photo: drobotdean/Freepik

This is where college shines because you can easily build soft skills by completing your university classes and engaging in extracurriculars. ✨ 

On the other hand, trade school gets right down to business by offering short-term vocation-specific courses with not much focus on character-building activities. 🫡

This means you’ll most likely not find any soccer clubs, student council events, or similar activities to hone your soft skills or opportunities to network and make new connections.

A college vs trade school infographic comparing the admissions process, credentials, duration, average cost, earning potential, job security, and soft skills

When exploring the reasons why you should go to college vs trade school, keep in mind that both are just different ways to get you to your ideal career and lifestyle

While there’s no single, fixed route to success, this guide can help lead you to the best choice for you. Good luck! 🤩

College vs Trade School: Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main benefits of attending trade school?

The advantages of attending trade school are fewer admission requirements, lower costs of attendance, shorter program durations, vocation-specific training to get you a job as soon as possible, and a reduced likelihood that your job could be outsourced. 

What are the main benefits of attending college?

How expensive is trade school vs college?

Why should I go to trade school? 

Why should I go to college? 

Is trade school the same as college?

Can you give examples of trade courses?

Why do people choose trade school over college? 

What are non-traditional approaches to college? 

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