Trade School vs College

Compared to a generation earlier, students have more options and choices to fulfill their career dreams. There are more courses, online classes, evening schools, and access to practical training. In fact, the changing nature of higher education is also offering increasing opportunities for high school graduates to specialize in particular trade instead of going to college. As a result, there is a lot of debate about Trade School vs College. If you or your loved ones are struggling to cope with their career dilemma, this article can help you take the right path according to your life goals.

Here is a simple breakdown to refresh the memory.

Trade School vs College

Traditional College

A traditional higher education consists of a two-year Associate’s degree or four-year Bachelors’s degree, which are usually followed by a Master’s degree if desired. In the first year, students enrolled in a traditional college get a broad overview of different subjects such as Mathematics, Science, English Literature, and History before studying specific advanced courses related to their careers.

The goal of a traditional college is to provide students with a wide-ranging perspective on the broader aspects of a particular career. For instance, anyone enrolled in a Business major is likely to get an education in marketing, advertising, human resource, and business management. The biggest advantage of such an education is the ability of the student to manage a variety of aspects related to the business. In the future, a marketing student can easily work in another relevant business field without enrolling in a college again.

Trade School

A trade school or a vocational education institute is different from a college because it offers very specific education related to a career path. Instead of offering a wider educational perspective, students enrolled in trade schools get laser-targeted education that teaches a skill. Examples of subjects and skills taught in a trade school are electrician, plumber, automobile technician, welding, and cosmetology.

From the very first day, students are exposed to theories and education that focus on their career field. At a later stage, students get practical hands-on training to master their skills. Besides manual labor, trade schools also offer students an opportunity for high-paying trade careers such as Licensed Practical Nurse, HVAC technicians, Home Inspector, Respiratory Therapist, etc.

These days, it’s not unusual to find vocations institutes teaching computer languages and data science. While trade schools are attractive in the sense that they may offer a guaranteed job, it’s sometimes difficult to switch careers at a later stage without going back to the trade school and relaunching your career from a scratch.

Should You Go to a College or a Trade School?

The decision to get a college degree or enroll in a trade school depends on your career goals; however, here are a few important guidelines to help you decide:

  • Study Commitment: Not everyone wants to go through four to seven years of college education because a college education is time-consuming and it requires a lot of commitment. If you’re not the ‘nerd type’, then it may be better to enroll in a trade school. Before taking the decision, just make sure that you know what you like because enrolling in a trade school on the pretext of not studying can be a very wrong move that people may regret.
  • Duration of Education: Vocational and trade schools are also a better choice for people looking to change careers or those who need a reliable steady income within a short time frame. While the typical length of a college is at least four years, some of the demanding careers such as welder, electrician, and motor mechanic require only two years to complete and students can start paid-apprentice as early as the first year. Similarly, high-paying jobs such as HVAC technician and dental hygiene specialist can be completed in only two years.
  • Career Path: Trade Schools are better suited to students who have decided that they like a specific field. On the other hand, a College education is a logical option for students who are not sure about their future careers and want to explore the options available to them before selecting a suitable field.
  • Income Opportunities: If you’re looking to pursue a career that can offer a lucrative income beyond $100,000 per year, getting a college degree will definitely offer an easier chance to achieve the objective within a set time frame. While the starting salaries of a college graduate may be low, a college degree usually ensures that graduates are able to earn a hefty income as they progress through their career field. In contrast, skilled jobs may or may not offer an opportunity to strike it big when it comes to money. Usually, the starting salary is less than a Bachelor’s degree and experience does not guarantee a proportional increase in income.
  • Job Security: Despite the high pay rate of college graduates, it’s also true that graduation doesn’t mean job security. In times of recession and market turmoils, college graduates are mostly at the mercy of the market forces of demand and supply. The saturation of the job market means that you can lose your job quickly despite your experience and education. While this may also be true for skilled jobs, tradesmen and skilled workers are usually able to find work even in a recession because most trade schools focus on ever-green careers that will remain in demand irrespective of the economic conditions. For instance, a skilled plumber, home inspector, electrician, licensed practical nurse, electrician, and automobile technician are always in demand.
  • Career Change: Due to the broader educational perspective, a college degree is essential if you want to change your career choice. As such, any degree in business, medicine, law, or computer also offers the option to switch to another related field. A computer programmer can easily transfer the skills to the field of data science. Similarly, a physiotherapist may also transfer training to related medical fields. A school teacher can become a school administrator or get a job dealing with public policy.
  • Career Transition: For traditional skill-based jobs, the transition to another field is usually not possible. A plumber or technician wishing to change their career in the 40s will likely need to go back to a trade school. Besides, most alternate careers also require some sort of advanced degree before they will consider a candidate for an interview.
  • Cost of Education: It’s true that a college degree is beneficial in a variety of job-related aspects, but it is also very expensive. These days, it’s not uncommon for students to amass debt of thousands of dollars. According to the College Board, the average debt of a college graduate is usually $30,000 as they get out of college. Considering that the starting salary for a recent college graduate is only $10,000 more than the average trade school graduate, the average debt of $30,000 is a huge burden on a college graduate that will stay with them for a long-time before they can pay off the original amount.
  • Job Prospect: A lot of high school students assume that they will get a job as soon as they are out of college. In reality, many college graduates do not find a job upon graduation, which can lead to mental and financial distress. In contrast, the flexible nature of skills taught in a trade school means that trade schools are in a much better position to provide a debt-free job after graduation. This is also the reason why a lot of people with an advanced college degree go back to vocational institutes to learn skilled art because it provides a relatively secure job in a quick time.

The Real Advantage of a Trade School

The debate regarding college vs trade school is complicated because the decision mainly depends on the individual requirements of a person. However, it’s also true that the information about trade schools is just starting to spread among potential candidates due to the Internet. Accordingly, it can take some time to dispel myths and realities about vocational and technical education.

Perhaps, the most common myth surrounding trade schools is the lack of income opportunities, which often discourages potential candidates to enroll. In reality, nothing can be farther from the truth as students can earn high wages after high school without a Bachelor’s degree.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage of elevator installers and repairers was $70,910 in 2010. It is pertinent to state that the job only requires an apprenticeship and no work experience is necessary. Similarly, first-line supervisors of police and detectives earned $78,260 and required only a few years of experience. In fact, administrative service managers are able to make similar wages with only 1 to 5 years of experience.

Many other lucrative careers that don’t require work experience include fashion designers, nuclear power reactor operators, power distributors, media & communication workers, and insurance claim adjusters. Most of these trades pay anywhere between $65000 to $80,000. In addition to these wages, individuals who have at least one to five years of experience can become managers. Accordingly, the average income of a manager is more than $100,000 in some of these industries and it only requires a high-school diploma and less than 5 years of on-the-job experience.

While this is not an exhaustive list, it just proves that there is a lot of demand for someone who is skilled at what they do. Compare it to college degrees where you may need to wait five to seven years to get out of the college and still find a starting salary of less than $50,000. This does not take into account the time it takes to look for the job and the massive debt that you may need to pay in the following years. In contrast, if you stick to your skills and prove your mettle, you may become a skill-based manager earning six figures after just a few years in the service.


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The Verdict: Trade School vs College

In spite of all the benefits and drawbacks of the trade school and college, the decision to enroll in either depends on the goals of each individual.

For most individuals, the college may be a way forward to traditional work roles because college graduates are considered thought-leaders as they are trained to adapt to a variety of different scenarios. Due to a greater knowledge base and exposure to a diverse subject matter, college graduates will likely find it easier to change their careers in the future. The transition to another career may also be easy because most alternate careers require some sort of college degree.

On the other hand, trade schools are great for someone who is laser-focused on a certain career. If you know what you love doing or you think that you will enjoy a particular trade, trade schools are the way to go because they offer education, skills, and training that can be used immediately in the job market. In fact, going to a trade school may also suit a college graduate who decides to change their career after many years at an existing job.

Overall, the choice between trade school vs college depends on decision-making. As discussed, both institutions offer a wide range of choices and lucrative income opportunities; therefore, it’s a good idea to decide if you think that you know what you want to do. If you have already made a choice and there is a trade school that offers training opportunities, then starting your career as a skilled worker may be the best choice.

In contrast, if your career choice requires a degree or if you still want to evaluate your career choice, then a college makes more sense. Perhaps, a better way is to talk to a college counselor and a trade school instructor because they can provide you a real insight into the challenges of the real world.


What does a trade school mean?

A trade school or a vocational education institute is different from a college because it offers very specific education related to a career path.

What do you learn at a trade school?

Instead of offering a wider educational perspective, students enrolled in trade schools get laser-targeted education that teaches a skill. Examples of subjects and skills taught in a trade school are electrician, plumber, automobile technician, welding, and cosmetology.

What is the difference between trade school and vocational school?

Trade school and vocational school are interchangeable terms that refer to educational institutes that offer very specific education related to a career path. Technical college can also be used instead of trade school or vocational school.

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